Since he was sworn into office in January 2019, Probate Judge Randy Jinks of Alabama has had a central role in the most significant moments of people's lives in Talladega County, about 50 miles east of Birmingham. Jinks, the county's chief election official, has overseen adoptions and guardianships, mental health commitments and the issuing of marriage licenses.
Behind the scenes, employees accuse Jinks, 65, of cultivating a toxic and hostile workplace that undermined the integrity of his office.
More than 100 allegations were outlined in a scathing 78-page complaint issued in March by the Judicial Inquiry Commission, the state body that reviews complaints against judges, detailing racist and sexist conversations that employees claim Jinks initiated, including talking about pornography and a video of a woman doing a striptease. Some allege that he made disparaging remarks about George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black people who came into the office and the office's sole Black employee.
Some employees also allege that Jinks, who is white, used profane language and threw tantrums, once going on a tirade after his sandwich went missing from a refrigerator, and that he tried to use the power of his position to get or grant favors.
The complaint, which is based on interviews with current and former employees of the Talladega County Probate Office, accuses Jinks of exhibiting a pattern of behavior "that has created a difficult, unprofessional, and inappropriate atmosphere," which has "injured respect for the judiciary."
Jinks is accused of violating the state Canons of Judicial Ethics, the guidelines that say judges must uphold the honor of the judiciary, maintain decorum and avoid impropriety. He has denied the majority of the accusations, saying some of the incidents have been taken out of context, and he is fighting the allegations in the Alabama Court of the Judiciary.
Jinks was suspended in March and will remain suspended until the court decides whether the claims warrant punishment, including a longer suspension or removal from office. No trial date has been set.
"I am a decent person," Jinks said in an interview on local television station WOTM in March. "I am very respectful around women. I do not use racial slurs. I do not go on tirades in office. I do get mad if somebody steals my food."
In a 44-page answer to the complaint filed in April, Jinks denies "any inappropriate demeanor regarding African Americans" and said the complaint "contains flagrant, false, vague and subjective accusations."
The case, which continues, has put a spotlight on how often complaints against judges in the state are reviewed and whether the mechanism to punish judges for misconduct or ethics violations is sufficient.
"In the past, there have been individuals on the Judicial Inquiry Commission that have had a less strict view of judges' adhering to the rules, and they simply were not really open to removing judges," said Sue Bell Cobb, who retired as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2011 and has advocated for reforms. "Judges should be held to a higher standard. End of story."
'Grossly inappropriate demeanor'
Jinks won his probate judge race in November 2018, defeating his Democratic opponent by more than 5,000 votes and becoming the first Republican elected to the office in Talladega County.
Probate judges are elected to six-year terms in Alabama, and nearly every county, including Talladega, doesn't require them to have law degrees or to be lawyers, unlike probate judges in most other states. Jinks is a former program director for the Alabama State Parks, and he had worked on the campaign of Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, who left office in 2011.
"I felt the time was right," Jinks told The Daily Home newspaper of Talladega in 2018 about why he ran for the judgeship. "The man upstairs wanted me to do this."
According to the Judicial Inquiry Commission's complaint, which identifies employees only by their initials, Jinks' "grossly inappropriate demeanor" didn't begin immediately; instead, it ramped up about six months into his judgeship.
The employees say he would mouth a racial slur "on occasions" to his deputy chief clerk when he was referring to a Black person. One time, after a Black couple had been in the office to fill out a marriage certificate, he said, "What did their Black asses want?" an employee recalled, according to the complaint.
He is also accused of having spoken disparagingly about the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that erupted across the country after Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis a year ago.
Employees say he commented that "I don't see anything wrong with the police killing him" and that "he pretty much got what he deserved."
Jinks would also play uncensored videos of racial justice protests that included racial slurs and profane language loud enough that they could be "heard by others outside his office, including any customers at the front counter," according to the complaint.
Employees say that last June, when news reports surfaced that Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR's top series, had found a noose in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway, Jinks commented that Wallace was "just playing the Black card."
The only Black employee among the nine or so people who worked under Jinks at the probate office says in the complaint that Jinks would aim racist and unprofessional comments at him.
"He was a wolf in sheep's clothing," the man, Darrius Pearson, who joined the office as a clerk in 2018 under the previous probate judge, told NBC News. Pearson said that he had even voted for Jinks but that after months of humiliating and withering comments, he quit in November and wanted to come forward publicly.
Pearson said that in May 2019, Jinks saw his new car and said that he, as a judge, couldn't afford one. "What are you doing? Selling drugs?" Jinks said, according to Pearson.
Last September, Pearson returned to work after a trip to the post office about the same time that students from Talladega College, a private historically Black college, were marching in support of Black Lives Matter. He said Jinks asked him repeatedly whether he had joined the demonstration.
"I don't want nothing to have to happen to your job, you out there marching — marching 'Black Lives Matter' during county time," Jinks said before he walked off laughing, according to Pearson and the complaint.
The complaint says employees felt uncomfortable and embarrassed by Jinks' "inappropriate demeanor" toward Pearson and other Black people.
Jinks, who is married with a daughter, is also accused of using demeaning language about women and talking openly about sex. Pearson said that in July, around the time of a Republican runoff election in Alabama's U.S. Senate race, Jinks showed him a video of a woman doing a striptease while they were in an election room.
Pearson said he told Jinks he didn't want to look at the video.
Another time, Jinks told a female employee: "I like porn. Don't you?" according to the complaint. He is also accused of having commented about an employee's breasts and stared at her body, as well as having made other female employees uncomfortable. Employees said he also routinely commented about the physical appearance of female lawyers and spoke derisively about women with tattoos or about their body size.
"Don't ever marry a woman. She'll get fat," he said after he saw a photo of a female employee in her wedding dress, according to the complaint. Jinks' comments about the employee's weight were "so prevalent as to give her the impression that her weight matters more to him than her work performance," the complaint said.
Pearson, who had been the only male employee in the office, said Jinks gave him a birthday card in September featuring a cartoon cow and donkey and the message "Thought you'd like to see some teats and ass on your birthday!" The card, which was shared with NBC News, is signed, "Have a Great B'day. Randy."
Other employees refused to sign it, according to Pearson and the complaint. Jinks didn't deny having given the card but said in his response to the commission that "office humor has been overblown."
The complaint also says Jinks' county-owned cellphone was used to look at a website that sold sex products and to view provocative photos of women. It says he lent the phone to a felon whom he met when she was waitressing.
In addition, the complaint details allegations accusing Jinks of having abused the prestige of his judicial office by asking a prosecutor in a neighboring county to help the felon and release her early from her sentence on a narcotics-related charge.
The district attorney denied the request, saying it was inappropriate, according to the complaint, which said that Jinks tried to solicit the help of attorneys who appeared before his court to get the felon an early release and that he eventually succeeded.
Amanda Hardy, Jinks' attorney, said that the complaints were "concocted by a few disgruntled" employees and that the commission's complaint "fails to mention all exculpatory evidence and testimony." She said allegations that Jinks is racist were "fabricated to generate antagonism with the public, the Court of Judiciary, and the media."
'He thought he couldn't be touched'
In his response to the allegations, Jinks mostly denied what employees told the Judicial Inquiry Commission, according to the complaint.
He specifically denied the disparaging remarks about staring at women's bodies in the office and in court, as well as talking about body weight, among other accusations. He also said he couldn't remember certain actions he is accused of, such as telling an employee that he likes porn, according to the complaint.
He also denied having made remarks about Floyd.
"The Respondent believes ... that there exists no excuse for the killing of George Floyd, that watching the video is sickening, unconscionable, inhumane and horrifying," Jinks said in written answers to the complaint. In regard to Pearson's version of events about Black Lives Matter protests, Jinks "adamantly denies any communication, implied or expressed, that Mr. Pearson should not participate in any way with the Black Lives Matter march or the like."
Jinks also told the commission that if he did make certain comments, they were in a personal and private capacity, and that employees were eavesdropping or should have asked him to shut his door.
He said that comments people say they heard may have been taken out of context or were misunderstood jokes and that if he had been told that something was "racially or sexually insensitive and offensive," he would have "responded in a serious manner." Jinks didn't deny the interaction involving the striptease video that Pearson said he was shown, but he told the commission that it was played for three seconds or less.
In his written response, he said that "sharing the video amounted to a lapse in judgment, the significance of which has been exaggerated."
Jinks denied having asked for favors to help a felon, saying in his answer to the complaint that his helping her "was purely a ministry, in which no appearance of impropriety and/or expectation of judicial favor can reasonably be inferred."
Pearson said the complaints were a collaborative effort by employees who feared retaliation for speaking out but were fed up with Jinks.
"He is very arrogant, pompous, and he thought he couldn't be touched," Pearson said.
The complaint doesn't specify any grievances or allegations made by litigants, attorneys or members of the public, and it doesn't say any of Jinks' rulings were affected by his alleged misconduct.
Still, Jenny Carroll, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said that it matters how judges behave outside the courtroom and in front of office staff and that comments that appear to be inappropriate can call into question how they came to rulings.
"What if people coming before you are women and Black? If they don't get the outcome they wanted, they'll be wondering was it because their claim wasn't strong enough or perhaps the judge carries explicit biases," Carroll said. "The bottom line is it's going to raise doubts in people's minds."
Most complaints dismissed
The nine-member state Judicial Inquiry Commission, which is made up of judges, lawyers and private citizens, gets scores of complaints about judges every fiscal year, many of which fail to rise to the level of formal charges to be filed with the Court of the Judiciary, which is also a mix of legal professionals and laypeople.
The commission said it reviewed 174 complaints against judges in fiscal year 2018 and dismissed 132 of them without investigation, citing reasons such as that there was no reasonable basis to charge, that no ethical violation was determined or that a case wasn't within its jurisdiction. Of 18 investigations that were completed, all of the related complaints were dismissed, the commission said.
Ultimately, the commission filed no charges against judges in the Court of the Judiciary during fiscal year 2018. Cases are often settled with judges before trials are held, and judges may decide to retire or resign to avoid public scrutiny, Carroll said.
In rarer cases, judges are removed from the bench. That happened to Roy Moore, the former state chief justice, who was ousted twice for defying federal court orders. Moore's appeals were rejected.
The commission didn't immediately respond to requests for further information. Chairman Billy Bedsole, a lawyer, also didn't immediately reply to requests for comment.
Cobb, the former state chief justice, said changes are needed in the complaint process so people are comfortable coming forward. Currently, she said, the commission's process is too lenient toward judges, who are notified and kept apprised of investigations and also get copies of subpoenas given to witnesses.
Cobb said that gives judges the opportunity to use their influence and potentially put pressure on people to dissuade them from filing complaints for fear of retaliation.
She said reforms should include doing away with notifying judges about who filed complaints and directing more state funding toward the Judicial Inquiry Commission so investigations don't have to languish and all complaints can be fully reviewed, not just the most egregious cases.
Carroll said that even after a judge who clearly violated ethical standards is removed, other issues deserve scrutiny, such as identifying cases in which people were the victims of unfair and impartial rulings and offering remediation.
"Getting problem judges off the bench is only a piece of the problem," she said.