Judges Behaving Badly: Patronizing a Prostitute, Drunk Driving, Making Threats and Passes

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As arbiters of justice, judges are often viewed as beatific creatures, immune from the foibles that the plague the rest of us. Wrong! Judges behave badly too, as King County Bar Association president Richard Mitchell observed at a forum this week. While he was reluctant to name names, the latest report from the state body that disciplines judges provides some pretty interesting reading.

Over the last couple years, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct has sanctioned judges for patronizing and threatening a prostitute (former Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht, pictured above), doing a hit and run while diving under the influence (Judge John Lyman of Tenino and Tumwater municipal courts ) and making wildly inappropriate and even frightening comments (various judges).

For example, there's Judge John Henry of Garfield County District Court. From a 2010 stipulation that discusses a conversation between Henry ("the respondent") and a female attorney ("attorney A"):

The topic of camping arose. Attorney A recalls that she casually told respondent that she did not enjoy camping and that he replied, "Oh, if I got you stripped naked in the lake and soaped you down, you'd like it."

Henry, naturally, "does not recall his comment exactly this way," according to the stipulation, but recognized that he made some kind of "incautious" and "sexually suggestive" remark. Then, later that same month, he took another female attorney riding on his motorcycle, parked at a "rural, remote location" and, according to the attorney, asked if he could kiss her. (The judge "does not recall asking that," according to the document.)

The Commission also admonished King County District Court Judge Frank La Salata in 2012 for "engaging in discourteous and intolerant behavior" toward an intern serving as a deputy prosecutor. According to the intern and a defense attorney present at the time, the judge threatened to "rip her head off" if she every interrupted him again. (La Salata's not-so-exculpatory version was that he said he would verbally rip her head off.)

Like gods, judges should not be interrupted. Or at least that's how some judges seem to feel. The commission sanctioned former King County District Court Judge Judith Eiler, too, for going off at litigants when they dared speak while she was speaking, even though she herself frequently was a frequent interrupter. From a 2009 commission decision, discussing litigants' frustrations after leaving Eiler's courtroom:

They felt they did not have the opportunity to present their case; that they were scolded, intimidated, mistreated and threatened that their case would be decided, not upon the facts, but upon how they responded to the respondent. Some litigants gave up because of interruption and intimidation.

In her defense, Eiler said she was "experiencing particular stress in her personal life," according to the commission decision, reinforcing the idea that judges are merely human after all. Yet the commission observed that Eiler's behavior had undermined people's faith in the justice system.

The good news? Such findings by the commission are relatively rare. The commission sanctioned 13 judges in the last three years, even though it had received hundreds of complaints. Most of those came from people who lost in court and blamed the judge for bias, according to commission executive director Reiko Callner.

Then again, the commission may not be hearing from some of the most credible sources. As a judicial candidates forum underscored this week, judges and lawyers are often reluctant to tattle on their peers.

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