Three pending disciplinary cases against former Circuit Judge Mary Ann Gunn, now presiding as a fictional judge over a fictional drug court in “Last Shot With Judge Gunn,” were dismissed today in return for Gunn’s agreement never to serve as a judge again in Arkansas “in any capacity.” That means, in addition to agreeing to never run again at any level, that she couldn’t even agree, as retired judges often do, to handle cases on special assignment from the state Supreme Court. She can, of course, still play a judge on TV.
Here’s the news release and letter from David Stewart, executive director of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. He says little. Because the cases — dating back to 2010 — have been dismissed, the public can’t see the investigative file or the nature of the complaints against Gunn.
It’s simple to figure out the underlying issues, however, based on reporting here, much of it based on a pending lawsuit filed by W. H. Taylor of Fayetteville on behalf of former drug court clients. In addition to complaints that she coerced people into appearing on televised segments of her court, e-mails unearthed in the case from Washington County show Gunn was using her official time, public facilities and court personnel to lay the groundwork for her move to commercial television. Judicial ethics rules prohibit using the job for personal financial advancement.
It’s unusual for disciplinary proceedings to be undertaken by the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission after a judge leaves the bench. But it is able to review actions taken on the bench. Gunn’s road to TV has been a rocky one. It began with a judicial ethics advisory panel’s critical opinion of her filming court for showing on local cable TV and the state Supreme Court eventually banned TV in drug courts, which are meant to give drug offenders a path to clean records and a fresh start. This always seemed in conflict with a permanent TV record of often sad and unflattering stories. The shows were popular locally, however, and she often was praised in media and elsewhere for the work. This led, I think, to fear that she might attempt to return to the bench if the show doesn’t pan out. That, in turn, gave impetus to an investigation of her use of public resources to prepare for the TV show and today’s result.
Gunn retired in May. She’s drawn on people with ties to the court system for episodes of her show filmed in Fayetteville and rented space in the county courthouse. But she’s sought people in rehab programs, as opposed to people in the criminal justice system, to agree to TV participation in return for getting financial help with treatment. Some treatment professionals have objected to the idea and a national organization of drug court workers has criticized putting court proceedings on TV.
Gunn stopped talking to me long ago, so I didn’t seek a comment. But I noticed her production company, Trifecta Entertainment declined comment or to make Gunn available when another reporter called. She’s been in California this week, I’m told.