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Federal Judges Very Rarely Sanctioned for Misconduct

Federal judges, who have lifetime appointments, hold positions that give them unique power to control the future of defendants who appear before them in public proceedings. However, when it comes to examining the personal behavior of those same jurists, they are surrounded by a cloak of secrecy so impenetrable that only the most heinous misconduct is ever revealed to members of the public.

Most judicial misconduct occurs inside courtrooms and never comes to light, but some federal judges have stood on the other side of the bench for crimes they allegedly committed while not performing their judicial functions. In extreme cases, they have been stripped of their positions and sentenced to time behind bars.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark E. Fuller of the Middle District of Alabama resigned on August 1, 2015 after a five-judge panel convened by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that his arrest on charges of beating his wife could constitute grounds for his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and removal by the Senate.

“News of Judge Fuller’s impending resignation is a welcome outcome to a very painful breach of the public trust,” said Alabama’s 7th District Congresswoman Terri Sewell in a May 29, 2015 press release. “His resignation will be the culmination of a drawn out process that was woefully unnecessary. The public trust was violated the moment his wife phoned the police.”

Sewell and several of her colleagues led the call for Fuller to step down following his August 2014 arrest for misdemeanor battery after he allegedly beat his then-wife in an Atlanta hotel room. According to the police report, authorities responding to a 911 call discovered lacerations to Kelli Gregg Fuller’s mouth and forehead, and blood in the bathroom of their Ritz-Carlton hotel room. She told police that her husband threw her to the floor, kicked her, dragged her around the room by her hair and struck her in the mouth multiple times after she accused him of having an affair with a law clerk. Judge Fuller maintained that he was defending himself after his wife threw a wine glass at him. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.63].

A discovery request filed in a 2012 divorce proceeding by Fuller’s previous wife, Lisa Boyd Fuller, revealed the judge had a past history of alleged abuse. Lisa Fuller had also accused her then-husband of having an affair with his law clerk – the same Kelli Gregg whom he married after his divorce from Lisa was final. In the discovery request, Lisa Fuller asked him to admit to the affair and to allegations that he had physically abused her. At the judge’s request, records of those proceedings were sealed over his ex-wife’s objections.

Following his 2014 arrest, the Eleventh Circuit reassigned Fuller’s caseload but the judge continued to draw his salary while fighting the charge, which was expunged on April 2, 2015 after he completed a 24-week pre-trial diversion program that included domestic violence counseling and a drug treatment evaluation.

“Justice was not served,” declared Rep. Sewell. “We sent the wrong message to victims of domestic violence by allowing a federal judge to collect a paycheck – without managing a caseload – and ultimately having his record expunged.”

“Fuller failed to uphold our most fundamental values,” she continued. “Perhaps the only consolation is that he has chosen to spare his family and our nation of the expense of a drawn out impeachment process.”

Judge Fuller sent a two-sentence letter to President Obama at the end of April 2015 informing the president that he would resign, according to the judge’s attorney, Barry Ragsdale. “He is contrite and he’s apologetic, both to his family and to his colleagues on the court,” Ragsdale stated. “He feels very badly about what happened. He’s taking steps to address the situation.”

But Fuller’s letter came immediately after a five-judge panel appointed by the Eleventh Circuit recommended on April 27, 2015 that his case be referred to the Judicial Conference of the United States because his conduct “might constitute one or more grounds for impeachment under article II of the Constitution.”

Impeachment is the only means for removing federal judges. President George W. Bush had appointed Fuller in 2002; among the more notorious cases over which the judge presided was the public corruption trial of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and one-time HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.

Judge Fuller’s case may be one of the more egregious to surface publicly, but it is by no means the only example of judicial misconduct off the bench. Civil proceedings continue against a federal administrative law judge in Scranton, Pennsylvania who was accused of groping two women and kissing one of them.

Social Security Administration Judge Sridhar Boini pleaded guilty in January 2013 to simple assault after he was accused by courthouse security guard Alice De Quevedo of grabbing her breast and attempting to kiss her against her will in the Social Security Administration office in downtown Scranton. In exchange for his guilty plea, Boini was sentenced to three months of house arrest and two years’ probation. Earlier criminal charges filed against Boini involving another woman, Florence Gaffney, were dropped when he pleaded guilty.

De Quevedo filed a $3 million civil suit against the U.S. government, alleging that the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security failed to protect her from the judge. Meanwhile, Gaffney filed a separate lawsuit that also names the federal building’s security firm, Knight Protective Services, Inc., and Steamtown Mall Partners L.P. and Prism Asset Management Company, which manage the building.

Gaffney alleges in her suit that Boini was often intoxicated on the job and on two separate occasions made lewd gestures to her when she came to conduct business, causing her to suffer emotional injuries and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Her lawsuit seeks financial compensation to pay her medical bills.

Normally the federal government is immune from civil suits for actions committed by its employees, but the Federal Tort Claims Act provides for certain exceptions if a person can show that the injury was “reasonably foreseeable,” and that the government or its employees failed to prevent the injury. [See: PLN, March 2014, p.44].

On March 26, 2015 a federal district court threw out the government’s motion to dismiss Gaffney’s suit on the grounds of sovereign immunity. The U.S. Attorneys Office argued that the government could only be held liable for failing to protect Gaffney from Boini if it had learned of the judge’s conduct outside working hours. But U.S. District Court Judge Robert D. Mariani of the Middle District of Pennsylvania held the government’s argument stemmed from what he called a “tortured reading” of the case law.

“It would serve no rational purpose to hold that the duty only attaches if the government foresaw danger based on actions that the individual took while ‘off the clock,’ or – even more perversely – that the government may ignore foreseeable dangers just because they happened to arise during an employee’s work time,” he wrote.

At the same time, however, the court delivered Gaffney a setback, dismissing her suit for failure to substantiate a claim against the parties named in the action.

“It does not state how the defendants – all of whom, aside from Judge Boini, are corporate entities – came upon this information, what specifically they knew prior to the Gaffney incident, which employees of the particular defendants knew this information, how these employees’ knowledge can be imputed to each defendant entity, and so on,” Judge Mariani said. “Without answering these questions – and possibly others – the complaint cannot state a claim for relief that ‘is plausible on its face’ and goes beyond mere labels and conclusions.”

The judge dismissed Gaffney’s claim without prejudice, granting her leave to amend the complaint. “We will be filing an amended complaint to comply with the judge’s instruction,” said attorney Patrick J. Doyle, Jr., who represents Gaffney. Her suit remains pending. See: Gaffney v. United States, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00643-RDM.

De Quevedo’s lawsuit benefited from the ruling in Gaffney’s case, according to her attorney, Larry Moran, because her claims concerning Boini’s misconduct so closely mirrored Gaffney’s. “It helps us because it makes it clear a claim can be brought,” Moran said.

The U.S. government agreed to settle De Quevedo’s suit in June 2015 for $50,000. The settlement included a confidentiality clause.

A former Senior U.S. District Court Judge in Georgia was sentenced to a short jail term after pleading guilty to charges stemming from drug deals with a stripper-turned-government-informant, as well as charges of using drugs and giving the stripper his $825 government-issued laptop.

Former Judge Jack Camp was arrested on October 1, 2010 in an FBI sting operation during which he provided an exotic dancer with $160 to purchase drugs for him. According to government agents, Camp met the stripper the previous May when she did a table dance for him. Authorities said Camp was soon paying her for sex and they began smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine and a synthetic form of heroin. U.S. Justice Department prosecutor Deborah Sue Mayer said Camp was armed with two handguns when he showed up for the drug deal.

“He has disgraced his office,” said Senior U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan, who sentenced Camp to 30 days in jail, 400 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. “He has denigrated the federal judiciary. He has encouraged disrespect for the law.”

“When I look back at the circumstances which brought me here, it makes me sick to think I did them,” Camp told the court. “They were illegal, wrong, foolish.... The only thing I can say is that I’m so very sorry.”

Camp’s attorneys told Judge Hogan that depression, a bipolar disorder and brain damage sustained by Camp in a 2000 bicycle accident all contributed to his erratic behavior. Camp’s son, an Atlanta lawyer, pleaded for probation for his father.

But Judge Hogan noted that when Camp took his oath of office 22 years earlier, he had pledged to abide by the law. “Instead, for whatever reasons, the demons he had made him go another way,” Hogan said.

Camp was appointed to the federal bench in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. He retired as a condition of his guilty plea.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge G. Thomas Porteous, Jr. of Louisiana holds the dubious distinction of being the most recent federal jurist removed from office by impeachment. The U.S. Senate found Porteous guilty on December 8, 2010 of four articles of impeachment arising from allegations that he received cash and favors from attorneys with dealings in his court, used a false name to elude creditors and intentionally misled the Senate during his confirmation proceedings. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.1].

The articles of impeachment characterized his behavior as a “pattern of conduct incompatible with the trust and confidence placed in him.”

All 96 Senators in attendance voted guilty on the first article, which involved Porteous’ tenure as a state judge and his failure to recuse himself from cases involving a former law partner with whom he was accused of trading favors for money. The Senators split on the remaining three articles while still voting guilty; the Senate also voted to bar him from holding any federal office in the future.

“I am deeply saddened to be removed from office but I felt it was important not just to me but to the judiciary to take this fight to the Senate,” Porteous said in a statement, in which he also disputed the severity of the proceedings against him. “While I still believe these allegations did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses as a constitutional matter, I understand how people of good faith could disagree.”

Porteous became just the fifteenth federal judge to be impeached since the first jurist, U.S. District Court Judge John Pickering of New Hampshire, was removed from office by the Senate in 1803 on charges of mental instability and intoxication on the bench, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

Of the 15 federal judges to be impeached since the nation’s founding, three resigned prior to their trials in the Senate. Of the remaining 12, four were acquitted of the charges against them and remained on the bench; only nine have been convicted and removed from office in the past 240 years.

The rarity of the impeachment process, however, is just one indicator of the apparent immunity from discipline that federal judges enjoy. Anyone may file a formal complaint against a federal judge; the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court where the complaint originated is then tasked with reviewing the complaint and determining whether to take correction action, dismiss the complaint or appoint a special committee to investigate.

According to First Look Media, a source of “original, independent journalism,” an overwhelming number of complaints against federal judges are dismissed. In fact, First Look reported, of the 1,219 judicial complaints filed in 2013 alone, 1,153 were dismissed and only two referred for investigation. In the 12-month period ending on September 30, 2014, of the 1,233 complaints filed against federal judges, just four were referred to a special committee of a circuit court’s Judicial Council for review. If unsatisfied with the decision of a Judicial Council, the complainant can appeal to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

In 2013, a complaint was filed by five law students and numerous civil rights groups, including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the National Bar Association’s Dallas affiliate and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), against Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones following a speech she gave at the University of Pennsylvania Law School concerning the death penalty. According to the complaint, Jones allegedly made a number of improper and racist remarks that violated her duty to be impartial and damaged the public’s confidence in the judiciary.

According to multiple affidavits, Jones remarked that minorities are more “prone” to commit violent crimes; that Hispanic nationals would rather be on death rows in the U.S. than in Mexican prisons, even though Mexico has outlawed the death penalty; and that defense attorneys raise questions of racism, mental retardation and even innocence as “red herrings” to help murderers avoid execution.

The complaint against Jones was dismissed by the Judicial Council of the D.C. Circuit in August 2014. According to the dismissal order, which was made public in October 2014, Judge Jones admitted to making most of the remarks cited by the complainants, but the investigating judges determined that none of her comments constituted misconduct under federal judicial standards, defined as “conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts.”

Ultimately, the Judicial Council dismissed the complaint after determining that because no one had recorded Jones’ remarks, there was no definitive proof that she had actually made any statements which could have been considered misconduct, such as the remark that minorities are more “prone” to committing crimes. But what attorneys for the complainants said they found more disturbing was the lack of transparency surrounding the review process.

“The process we’ve encountered, and are subject to, is opaque, secretive, and dishonest,” said Maurie Levin, one of the attorneys who filed the complaint against Jones. The investigating judges interviewed Jones and the attorney for the complainants, but did not interview the students themselves who had provided sworn affidavits – a move that attorneys for the complainants said was a mistake which formed the basis of their appeal of the findings.

“The student affidavits corroborated and underscored the fact of the ... statements, and added the students’ individual memories, reactions, and impressions. Moreover, the student affidavits were clear that the nature and impact of Judge Jones’ statements – particularly those regarding race – were deeply dismaying to many in the audience,” the appeal stated.

Texas Civil Rights Project executive director Jim Harrington said he believes the underlying problem is the attitude judges hold toward ethics complaints.

“I think they take a match to them,” Harrington stated. “That’s the sad thing about the process. The judges are afraid of scrutiny.”

But U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston, himself the target of a judicial complaint claiming that he “repeatedly made outlandish racial comments” during a hearing in an employment discrimination case involving a plaintiff of Indian descent, said most complaints deserve to be dismissed.

“What happens is a large number of people who’ve lost a case attribute that to something other than that their case wasn’t very good or, in rare cases, the law is phenomenally stupid – and yet we have to apply it,” Hughes said of the complaint review process. “If you saw the tenor of most complaints, you’d understand.”

One example of a successful judicial complaint, however, occurred when now-former Middle District of Tennessee Bankruptcy Court Judge George C. Paine II received a written reprimand from the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability in November 2011, based on a complaint alleging that he was a member of a discriminatory country club. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.10]. Judge Paine subsequently retired from the bench.

PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann had assisted the complainant in navigating the judicial complaint process and successfully appealing to the Committee – which took around 3½ years. Including the decision regarding Judge Paine, the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability has issued only eight written rulings in complaints brought against federal judges in the past decade.


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Related legal case

Gaffney v. United States