State disciplinary board recommends DA Valdez be censured for inappropriate conduct; special prosecutor had sought 1-year suspension

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, right, is pictured Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, outside the hearing room at the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka, where she is attending her disciplinary hearing. No cameras were allowed inside the hearing room.

Updated at 3:50 p.m. Tuesday, April 23

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez should be censured for unprofessional conduct toward a Douglas County judge, the state’s top panel for attorney discipline is recommending.

A panel for the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys is recommending to the Kansas Supreme Court that Valdez be censured for “undignified or discourteous conduct” toward Douglas County Chief Judge James McCabria in 2021, shortly after she took office.

The panel found that Valdez violated “her duty to the legal system, the legal profession, and the public as a result of her comments about Judge McCabria” in a press release and in a Facebook post. It found that she did so knowingly and that her misconduct “caused actual injury to the legal system, the legal profession and the public.”

The panel also found that she “impugned Judge McCabria’s character in a publicly issued press release and by referring to him as an ‘insecure man,'” though not by name.

The disciplinary board, however, declined to recommend that Valdez be suspended from the practice of law for one year, which was the recommendation of Special Prosecutor Kimberly Bonifas in the case. Valdez has denied that she committed any violations of the state code of conduct, but her attorney, Stephen Angermayer, indicated that if any violations were found she should face public censure, not suspension.

Bonifas had claimed in her formal complaint that Valdez had violated four parts of the state code governing attorney conduct, but the panel found that Bonifas had met the burden of proof with respect to only one part: the rule that forbids engaging in undignified or discourteous conduct degrading to a tribunal.

The three alleged violations where Bonifas did not meet the burden of proof, according to the panel, were the rules against making a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge; engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice; and engaging in any other conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.

On Tuesday morning, when the censure recommendation was made public, Valdez’s spokesperson, Cheryl Cadue, did not comment specifically on the recommendation but told the Journal-World: “District Attorney Valdez is an independent prosecutor. Under her leadership our office remains steadfast in our mission to pursue justice and ensure public safety. Our work continues as it has every day since District Attorney Valdez was elected.”

The matter now goes to the Kansas Supreme Court, which is responsible for making final judgments about the conduct of attorneys in the state. If the Supreme Court follows the board’s recommendations, the censure would amount to a public rebuke, but would allow Valdez to continue serving as Douglas County district attorney, which is an elected position for which Valdez is seeking reelection this year.

As the Journal-World has reported, the allegations against Valdez largely stemmed from her interactions with McCabria, including that she called him a liar and a sexist, implied that he was racist, sent him inappropriate texts saying he should be “ashamed” of himself, and that she yelled and cursed about him to the extent that multiple attorneys in her office resigned under the stress.

The hearing panel in the disciplinary case weighed the evidence against Valdez according to a “clear and convincing” burden of proof, which means it had to find a high probability of the evidence being true, not simply that it was more likely than not. The panel found that “much of the testimony was either vague or conclusory,” even though offered by multiple Douglas County judges, for whom the panel indicated respect.

During the hearing, Judge Amy Hanley said she was “shocked” by Valdez’s press release and stated that during a March 5, 2021, meeting between Valdez and McCabria, she had never seen an attorney treat a judge like Valdez treated McCabria. Judges Stacey Donovan and Sally Pokorny testified that judges handled interactions with Valdez with kid gloves. And Donovan told the hearing panel that Valdez did not have a good reputation and had eroded the public’s trust in the judicial system.

The hearing panel noted in its recommendation that had the standard of proof been different, the panel’s factual findings may have been different.

The panel also noted that the events at the heart of the disciplinary matter — such as a dispute between Valdez and McCabria over the resumption of jury trials — occurred during the COVID shutdowns, “which caused some new and unique challenges for the court system” and the DA’s office.

It also noted that the transition from former DA Charles Branson to Valdez “was not a smooth one” and that Valdez was not privy to some communications between Branson and the court. Branson left office in January 2021, when Valdez assumed control, about 10 months into the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted most aspects of public life.

While not excusing Valdez’s behavior, the panel said the context in which she took office should be taken into account for the purpose of imposing discipline.

In describing aggravating circumstances in the case, the panel noted “a pattern of misconduct” by Valdez, specifically referring to a March 23, 2021, press release in which she accused McCabria of misrepresenting her communication regarding the jury trial plan during COVID and a Facebook post the same day in which she referred to the “INSECURE MAN,” which the panel said could reasonably be interpreted as referring to McCabria.

Another aggravating factor, the panel said, was that Valdez refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of her conduct, choosing to characterize her comments as “unprofessional” rather than as actual violations of the attorney code.

However, in mitigation of her conduct, the panel found that Valdez was not motivated by dishonesty or selfishness; that she had five letters of support for her “good character and reputation”; that she did not personally create “material delays” in the proceedings; and that she had expressed remorse during the hearing, indicating that she was “sorry, regretful, and humiliated.”

During Valdez’s disciplinary hearing in December 2023, multiple Douglas County judges testified about the impact they believe Valdez has had on the perception of the legal system, including eroding the public’s trust. In addition to McCabria, Pokorny, Hanley and Donovan, Judges Blake Glover and Mark Simpson offered testimony in the case.

The panel members who rendered the censure recommendation — all Wichita-based attorneys — are Stacy Ortega, Gaye Tibbets and Sylvia Penner. Their recommendation is now in the hands of the Kansas Supreme Court, which will hand down a final decision.

Valdez, a Democrat, told the Journal-World at the time of her disciplinary hearing that she “absolutely” intended to run again. She filed for reelection on Jan. 12. Two weeks later, a Democratic challenger, Tonda Hill, filed to run. No one else has filed for the office as of Tuesday morning.

Before being elected as DA in November 2020, Valdez worked as a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, which she left under a cloud after she was put on administrative leave, with the possibility of being fired, following a conflict with KU in which she withheld student grades over a pay dispute with the university, as the Journal-World reported.

Valdez sent a letter to her students in which she called the incident an “unfortunate teaching moment” and wrote that “innocent parties” like them sometimes got caught up in contractual disputes. She told the Journal-World that her students supported her.

Valdez’s letter to students blamed the law school dean, Stephen Mazza, for Valdez’s actions and “privileged white men” who “refused to acknowledge the contributions and merits of women and minorities.”

Valdez has also been at odds with other entities in Douglas County, including the Douglas County sheriff and the Lawrence police chief, who took legal action against her after claiming she had weaponized her subpoena powers. Valdez was also listed as a corroborating witness in a federal lawsuit against KU, the City of Lawrence and multiple Lawrence police officers after a young woman was charged in January 2019 with filing a false report of rape.

Valdez’s attorney in the disciplinary matter was paid for by Douglas County. In September of 2023, the Journal-World reported that the cost as of then was $11,182, according to her office. The newspaper has reached out for an updated figure. When she took office in January 2021, Valdez’s annual salary was $164,000.


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