They decide hot-button topics ranging from abortion and racial discrimination to religious freedoms and contested elections. They can put you in prison or vindicate your civil rights. They can even sentence you to death. Who am I talking about? Judges.
Of all the public officials involved in the justice system, including the police, prosecutors, prison guards and parole officers, judges wield the most influence and power. Presumably, then, when we entrust members of the judiciary with such power we expect them to follow the law and conduct themselves in an ethical and professional manner.
Unfortunately that is not always the case, as demonstrated by the following recent examples of judicial misconduct.
Federal Judicial Hijinks
On February 6, 2008, Massachusetts U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Somma, 63, was pulled over following a minor car accident and charged with driving while intoxicated. He was wearing high heels, stockings and a cocktail dress at the time, and the arresting officer noted that the judge had to retrieve his driver’s license from his purse.
The following week Somma pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge; his license was suspended for a year and he was ordered to pay a $600 fine. He tendered his resignation two days later. However, after more than 200 attorneys signed on to a letter of support submitted to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, Somma sought to rescind his resignation.
“He made a mistake; he took responsibility for it,” said First Circuit Executive Gary H. Wente. Ultimately, though, Somma agreed to step down. “The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and Judge Robert Somma have agreed that he will not resume service on the United States Bankruptcy Court for Massachusetts but is leaving to pursue other endeavors,” the Office of the Circuit Executive wrote in a terse statement issued May 30, 2008.
Somma is now employed at the Boston law firm of Posternak Blankstein & Lund, as senior counsel. While he was not charged with ethical misconduct, apparently his penchant for crossdressing and drunk driving was too much for the dignity of the federal courts.
The resignation of another federal judge, U.S. District Court Judge Edward W. Nottingham, became effective October 29, 2008. Nottingham, who served as the chief judge for the District of Colorado, came under fire when a messy divorce settlement with his third wife revealed salacious details about his personal life, and his problems steamrolled from there.
The first of four complaints against Nottingham was related to his admission in his divorce case that he had spent $3,000 during a single night at a strip club. Complaint number two was lodged by a disabled attorney who blocked Nottingham’s car with her wheelchair after he parked in a handicap parking space. The attorney said Nottingham identified himself as a federal judge and threatened her. He was fined $100 for the incident.
A third complaint accused Nottingham of soliciting prostitutes using his court-issued cell phone and visiting an escort service’s website while at work. He was also accused of lying to investigators about the accusations.
On October 10, 2008, a fourth complaint was filed after a prostitute testified that Nottingham was one of her clients and had asked her to lie to federal authorities investigating their relationship.
Although Nottingham referred to the issues raised in the complaints as “private and personal matters involving human frailties and foibles,” he announced his resignation on October 21, 2008. The misconduct charges were then dropped by the Judicial Council of the Tenth Circuit as being moot. The Council noted that the former chief judge “may have made false statements” during the disciplinary investigation, but he was not criminally charged. See: In re: Nottingham, Judicial Misconduct Complaint No. 2007-10-372-36, et al. (Judicial Council of the Tenth Circuit).
Nottingham said he was “embarrassed and ashamed for any loss of confidence caused by [his] actions and attendant publicity,” and apologized to “the public and the judiciary.”
The former chief judge, who was dubbed “Judge Naughty” by the local press, is now in private practice in Denver. He still faces an ethics complaint filed with the Colorado Attorney Regulation Counsel. Judge Nottingham had been appointed by president George H.W. Bush and was generally fair in lawsuits filed by prisoners.
As more details of his sexual proclivities circulated in the local media, judge Nottingham held a bench trial on one of the last cases before he resigned which was a lawsuit brought by federal prisoner Mark Jordan challenging the constitutionality of the Ensign Amendment, the statute which bars federal prisoners from receiving sexually explicit materials in the mail. He quickly upheld the statute. Apparently it is immoral for prisoners to look at pictures and cartoons depicting nudity while judges consort with prostitutes with impunity until their spouses file for divorce.
U.S. District Court Judge Samuel B. Kent, 59, of the Southern District of Texas, also brought unwanted scrutiny to the federal bench. On Sept. 28, 2007, Kent received a three-page reprimand and 120-day suspension with pay from the Fifth Circuit Judicial Council, stemming from a complaint of sexual harassment. See: In re: Complaint of Judicial Misconduct against United States District Judge Samuel B. Kent, Docket No. 07-05-351-0086 (Judicial Council of the Fifth Circuit).
Kent’s case manager, Cathy McBroom, accused the judge of touching her in a lewd manner without her permission on several occasions. “The abuse began after Judge Kent returned to work intoxicated. He attacked me in a small room not 10 feet from the command center where the court security officers worked,” McBroom stated. “He tried to undress me and force himself upon me, while I begged him to stop. He told me he didn’t care if the officers could hear him because he knew everyone was afraid of him.”
McBroom’s request for harsher sanctions against Judge Kent was denied by the Fifth Circuit in December 2007. Dissatisfied with the light punishment imposed by the appellate court, McBroom hired Houston attorney Rusty Hardin.
On August 28, 2008, Kent was indicted on one count each of abusive sexual contact, attempted aggravated sexual abuse and obstruction of justice. Kent’s secretary, Donna Wilkerson, claimed that the judge had sexually abused her, too, and Kent was indicted on three additional counts on January 6, 2009. He was the first federal judge to ever be charged with sex-related offenses.
Kent later pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. Although the sex charges were dropped, he admitted that he had engaged in nonconsensual sexual conduct. Kent received a 33-month prison sentence on May 11, 2009; he was also fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $6,550 in restitution to his victims. See: United States v. Kent, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:08-cr-0596-RV. He was given the opportunity to further reduce that sentence by one year if he sought treatment for alcoholism while in prison.
Kent then announced ...