George W. Perez
The state board that investigates claims of judicial misconduct has accused Minnesota's top tax court judge of routinely delaying rulings, sloughing work off to his colleagues and lying about it in the official forms he submitted to the state. George W. Perez, appointed to the Minnesota Tax Court in 1997 and chief judge since 2001, was named in the complaint filed Tuesday, Nov. 27, by the Board on Judicial Standards. The 35-page complaint lays out alleged violations of the state's Code of Judicial Conduct. Many deal with claims that the judge routinely ignored the state law that dictates that a case must be decided within three months after it is submitted to the court. One case reviewed by board investigators stretched as long as a year and a half, the complaint says, while others languished from eight to 16 months. The Board of Judicial Standards claims Perez's behavior violated state statutes in four areas: he falsely certified records involving the disposition of cases, he refused new case assignments, he made false representation to the judicial board's investigators and he dragged cases out long past when the law said they were to be decided. Perez, 53, of Mendota Heights could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Frederick Finch, said the jurist wasn't guilty of any wrongdoing and would be contesting the board's claims. "Obviously, we think they will not be able to prove all the charges, or to
the extent they can prove them, they'll have no legal significance," said Finch. "Our belief is that when the case is tried, the trier of fact will arrive at the conclusion that there's no basis for removing the judge from office or not taking any serious actions against him."
Perez's formal answer to the complaint also was filed Tuesday. In it, Finch wrote thatmore important to make a good decision than to comply with the statutory deadline."
Statistics weren't available Tuesday on the court's current caseload; the court administrator was not in the office. But Finch said that since the tax court was the only venue for hearing such cases in the state, "the result is they get an enormous number of case filings." He estimated that when there were three judges, each handled 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year. "No mortal judge can dispose of 5,000 cases in a year," he said. "They do so without much assistance." Unlike their robed brethren in the state district courts, tax court judges don't have law clerks. The entire tax court has a single clerk and one paralegal, Finch said. "It can be very frustrating and very difficult to keep up with the caseload," the lawyer said. The board's complaint lists 10 cases it says are "representative examples" of Perez's delays. They involved petitions filed by private citizens, big corporations, small businesses and a farm co-op. The complaint said that Perez stretched cases out "routinely," calling conferences with the parties to ask for more time or more information the judge "consistently and in good faith followed Tax Court practices and procedures, as he understood them, for calculating and documenting due dates for decisions and grants of extensions of time as they were explained to him by other judges and court staff beginning with his appointment to the court ... without objection or complaint."
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court must appoint a three-person panel to hear the board's complaint at a public trial. That proceeding could pit Perez against former colleagues, and the complaint says some of them raised objections about Perez's practices. The Minnesota Tax Court hears appeals of orders issued by the state's Commissioner of Revenue on local property tax valuations, classifications and exemptions. The court is not part of the state's judicial branch; it is part of the executive branch. Its judges, who serve six-year terms, are appointed by the governor. There are supposed to be three judges on the court, but at present Perez is the only one. Kathleen Hvass Sanberg resigned in September after she was appointed a U.S. bankruptcy judge. Sheryl A. Ramstad also resigned in September. Perez, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, was appointed to the court in 1997 by Gov. Arne Carlson. He was reappointed by Jesse Ventura in 1999, Tim Pawlenty in 2005 and Mark Dayton in 2011. In the past, he's been named the Lawrence Lasser Tax Judge of the Year by the National Conference of State Tax Court Judges. He is on the governing council of the American Bar Association's Judicial Division. In that group, he is a chair of the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges.
"Judge Perez's practice of failing to make timely decisions began shortly after his appointment to the tax court in November 1997," the complaint said. It said that when another judge asked Perez about the delays in late 1998 or early 1999 -- and expressed concerns they reflected badly on the court -- "Judge Perez responded with words to the effect, 'that's for me to worry about.' Judge Perez also told the other judge to leave him alone and accused the judge of picking on him because of his ethnicity." The complaint also said that Perez "frequently opined to other tax court judges and court personnel that the quality of his judicial decisions took precedence over meeting any deadline for deciding a case. He and a different tax court judge discussed his delay in deciding cases on several occasions. During those conversations, Judge Perez expressed his belief that it was
In mid-December, he allegedly told court staff to add him to the rotation every other turn, so instead of getting every third case filed, he got every fifth case. He also allegedly told the staff not to tell the other two judges about it. One of the other judges found out about it and confronted the staff, the complaint claims. In his reply to the board, Finch wrote that Perez told court staff to give him every fifth case but that state statutes allowed him to do that and it was done "to balance the caseload of the three tax court judges." Finch also said Perez denies telling the court staff "to withhold information about the change in case assignment rotation" from the other judges. The charges against Perez will be heard by a three-member panel that includes a judge, a lawyer and a layperson. After hearing evidence, the panel issues findings of fact. If it finds rules have been violated, it will recommend a sanction to the Minnesota Supreme Court. That sanction can range from a private admonition to removal from the bench. Perez remains on the bench while the case is pending. "He comes to work every day in the morning, works every day and leaves at the end of the day -- which is good because otherwise, they'd have to turn out the lights," Finch said. David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.