On April 3, 2019, the court hearing looked and sounded mostly like any other.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Erin O’Brien Otis is about to sentence a man, who had pleaded guilty to his fourth, fifth, and sixth felonies.
But about eight minutes into the proceeding, as Otis is shuffling through papers, she makes a quiet off-handed comment.
“I can hear those bubbles.”
The defendant and attorneys present in the courtroom then chuckle.
What the courtroom cameras and the minute entry don’t show is that Otis and her staff threw a party in the courtroom for the defendant’s young son, whose birthday happened to fall on the sentencing date.
There were bubbles, a treat, and singing.
During the sentencing, the top of the boy’s head can be seen moving in the gallery and shooting a light-up bubble gun.
A half-filled bottle of pink bubble solution can also be seen on the stand where witnesses testify.
Clerk Kelly Shafer, who blew the whistle on years of inappropriate conduct in Otis’s courtroom, said there’s no video of the actual party because they turned off the courtroom cameras and then turned them back on for the formal sentencing.
Among the defendant’s convictions set for sentencing were two domestic violence aggravated assault charges.
“The audio and video was shut off,” Shafer said. “This was one of the defendants they had a crush on. They would flirt with him all the time.”
Otis declined ABC15’s interview request but released a lengthy statement.
She admitted to allegations about the memes and emails but “absolutely refuted” that she ever engaged in any ex parte communications. Otis did confirm they did give the boy a birthday treat, sang happy birthday to him, and gifted him a toy, but she denies it was a birthday party.
[Otis’s full statement is posted at the end of this report]
Judge Otis and certain members of her staff have allegedly engaged in years of inappropriate conduct and contact with defendants, including “routine” ex parte communications, according to two judicial complaints, sealed motions, and confidential records obtained by ABC15.
ABC15 also exposed Otis and her staff routinely mocking and ridiculing people during hearings and trials by routinely emailing each other cruel and obscene statements, jokes, and memes.
Legal and ethics experts said the overall culture in Otis’s courtroom was “astonishing and horrific,” especially since she presided over death penalty cases.
Otis, who was on the bench for eight years, is now a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office capital case unit.
She resigned from the bench in 2020 in the middle of a two-year state judicial investigation prompted by information provided by Shafer.
But Otis avoided any discipline and public accountability.
The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct dismissed a detailed complaint with evidence and scrubbed Otis’s name from their final findings.
The commission’s anonymized public order from the case doesn’t address whether it ever investigated or considered information about the birthday party or ex parte communications.
Otis received a confidential warning letter in the event she should ever return to the bench.
The commission’s private letter to Otis states she improperly allowed her staff to exchange memes and emails. But it added the commission did not find clear and convincing evidence related to any other allegations.
It’s not clear how deeply all of the allegations were investigated.
The judicial commission, which follows special court rules and not Arizona public record laws, refused ABC15’s request for more information and documents about their investigation and deliberations.
“[Ex parte communications happened] daily. Routinely. Almost every single day,” Shafer said. “I think people just didn’t believe the inmates that it was going on.”
She added, “I think they were like, ‘What judge is going to come into a locked courtroom and talk with the inmates on the chain?' And it happened almost daily.”
Ex parte communications are when a judge speaks to one side, or individuals in a case, without the other side or attorney’s knowledge.
“You don’t get to have this little side conversation with someone else because bad things often happen,” said Charles Geyh, a law professor with Indiana University. “It’s often a sign that you are either favoring them — that they’re now your buddy and you want to help them out in a way that you don’t want to help the other side. Or, I want to threaten them, intimidate them, extract favors from them that I don’t want the other side to know about.”
Geyh continued, “And that is very much in tension with a role of the judge who is supposed to remain impartial — to be fair to all sides.”
ABC15 obtained a five-page affidavit written in April 2020 by defendant Victor Hernandez, who was eventually convicted of first-degree murder.
The affidavit outlines multiple times when Otis spoke to him without his attorneys present — sometimes about his rap music.
Shafer said specific parts of Hernadez’s statements sound true.
“Somehow [Otis] got a CD of his rap music of that particular defendant,” Shafer said. “She talked about how much she liked the music and would listen to it. And to this day, I don’t know how she got the CD.”
It’s not just Shafer and Hernandez who claim that Otis would have inappropriate communications with defendants.
ABC15 confirmed the judicial conduct commission dismissed another complaint against Otis from 2017.
The public order was scrubbed of her name.
It states, “The commission decided, after considering all the facts and circumstances, to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rules 16(b) and 23(a), but to issue a warning letter to the judge reminding her to refrain from making statements on pending matters and to remain fair and impartial.”
Before leaving the bench, Otis had been negotiating and talking about terms for a job as a high-level county prosecutor for months leading up to her hire. She was still ruling on motions and sentencing a defendant in at least one capital criminal case.
Through an MCAO spokesperson, Otis released the following statement.
For more than 20 years as a public servant, I have always tried to act with integrity. I have always taken my ethical responsibilities seriously, as a lawyer and a judge. The allegations that you are referring to in your email, which were submitted to the Commission on Judicial Conduct three years ago, were serious and extremely troubling to me.
At the outset, I want to emphasize that all of these allegations were investigated by the Judicial Conduct Commission, and only one was sustained by it. Specifically, the Commission found that there were occasions where I failed to appropriately supervise my staff. The other allegations were unfounded and dismissed.
To be clear, at no time did I ever participate in ex parte communications. Nor was “an album of memes and photos” ever kept in my division. As for your inquiry about a birthday party in my courtroom, several years ago, my staff did provide a 2 year-old boy, who was present in the courtroom on his birthday with his parents (who were the defendant and victim), with a donut and I did suggest those present in the courtroom sing happy birthday to him. My staff also provided the child a toy to play with, as he was getting restless in the courtroom waiting. This family had previously been in my courtroom, on multiple occasions, with multiple children, due to the lack of childcare available to them. Attorneys representing both sides were also present and no one raised any concerns.
During my eight years as a judicial officer, I do not claim do have always done everything perfectly. In retrospect, the situation relating to the emails and/or memes over email should have been discouraged and stopped. I admit that I did not handle that in the best way and have taken full responsibility for it. I have also taken full responsibility for anything I said over email that lacked professional boundaries.
As noted above, I was a Superior Court Judicial Officer for eight years. During that time, I received excellent judicial performance review scores. These events that occurred several years ago constituted a very brief, and limited example of my judicial tenure. I took responsibility for them quite some time ago.
As for the allegations regarding “an album of memes and photos”, a birthday party in my courtroom, or ex parte communications with either side, I absolutely refute the claims, and did so at the time they were made. An investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct has cleared me of any wrong-doing with regard to those allegations.
I encourage you to review the attached confidential letter sent to me by the Commission on Judicial Conduct, after a very lengthy and diligent investigation, and the foregoing statement from me, prior to any report regarding this matter.
Late on Monday, a Maricopa County Superior Court spokesperson confirmed that bailiff Barbara Chavez was no longer an employee.
Court rules prohibit officials from releasing information about whether an employee was terminated or resigned.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: “(dis)Honorable is an ongoing ABC15 investigation. Upcoming reports will include expert analysis, a lack of transparency and public accountability with judicial oversight, and MCAO’s hiring of the judge. Chief Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing can be reached at Dave@ABC15.com.]