THE SMALL-TOWN JUDGE who liked to threaten traffic violators with deportation and life sentences will step down next week after 35 years of meting out justice his way. But Judge Eugene "The Hammer" Hammermaster of Sumner will have to make at least one more judicial appearance—defending himself at a state disciplinary hearing on 65 alleged new courtroom violations.
Hammermaster, 67, was censured and suspended for six months in 1999 by the state Supreme Court for "ignorance and disregard for the limits of his authority" (See "Hammerin' Man," Feb. 17, 2000). The town judge held trials without defendants present, told scofflaws he'd "throw away the key" if they didn't pay fines, and bragged of using a "gut reaction" to determine which Spanish-speaking offenders were illegal immigrants and should be sent packing. A review of just 21 of his cases turned up 12 defendants he threatened with an indefinite jail sentence or life term.
Put on two years probation and monitored by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, Hammermaster promised to discontinue the disputed practices when he returned to the bench in April 2000. Instead, says the commission in a new list of charges, he resumed a pattern of unethical and unconstitutional actions. Besides repeating some of the earlier offenses, the state says, Hammermaster also:
*Told defendants without drivers' licenses they could not own cars.
*Ordered offenders to leave town and not return without his OK.
*Asked indigent defendants in open court to detail just how poor they were.
*Charged defendants who couldn't pay fines $50 a day for being in jail.
*Failed to arraign defendants in open court or advise them of their right to counsel.
Hammermaster denies the charges and says he plans to fight them at a hearing in March. The judge thinks he was, in part, set up by the commission—"a spurious pretense" as he puts it. A court overseer had earlier told state officials there wasn't much sense in watching over Hammermaster since he "would not be susceptible to change" anyway.
The judicial commission has also charged two other municipal judges, one with similar violations. Officials say Judge Ramon Reid of the Toppenish/Wapato city courts was, like Hammermaster, banishing some violators from his jurisdiction and using improper plea forms. He has agreed to make changes.
A neighboring judge, Steven Michels of the Toppenish/Sunnyside courts, is accused of acting as a private attorney for some of the same defendants who later appeared before him when he sat as a public judge. Commission records show that, despite the seeming advantage of being both judge and defender in at least a dozen instances, Michels regularly fined his own clients and sometimes even sent them to jail.