700Judges Who Crossed The Line -- Or Erased It
- May 5, 2003J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles, California May 5, 2003
Judges Who Crossed The Line -- Or Erased ItThe Injudicious
Judges who crossed the line -- or erased it
Gail Diane Cox
The National Law Journal
You'd think they'd learn, what with all the shattered careers and yuckfests with Jay Leno presiding.
For Law Day 2003, The National Law Journal offers its list of judges behaving poorly -- or perhaps we should say behaving incomprehensively.
They are cause for celebration, because they were sitting in judgment over the rest of us on May 1, 2002, and this May 1, they weren't.
Each year, some are gone because they retired early while under investigation, in hopes of salvaging something. For some, it worked.
The allegations against an Arkansas judge, Sam Whitfield, were sealed when he agreed to retire effective Aug. 30, 2002 -- leaving behind only a notation that there were investigated complaints of misconduct on and off the bench.
Other judges were ousted by their state judicial conduct commissions with an embarrassing press release but their pensions intact. In a few cases, the judges are sitting out suspensions until their supreme courts decide what to do with them.
One judge who made this year's list of court buffoons has been off the bench since June of last year as a healthful side effect of his being under house arrest.
Ronald D. Bodenheimer
Deal gone bad: 4-year-old for a shrimp contract.
Judge Ronald D. Bodenheimer had a dream. It revolved around a scruffy brew-and-bait marina that he owned. Neighbors complained about drug dealing on the premises.
On the opening day of fishing season, a 15-year-old was electrocuted there because of a faulty conveyer belt. But the eyesore could be turned around, Bodenheimer believed, with one major fishing contract. And Bodenheimer, who sat on Louisiana's New Orleans District Court, thought he could use the power of the bench to get it.
A millionaire restaurateur, Al Copeland, had a child custody case against his ex-wife in Bodenheimer's court. Using go-betweens, the judge let Copeland know he could have anything he wanted -- taking the 4-year-old away from his mother on Christmas morning was specifically mentioned -- in return for a healthy contract to supply shrimp. In one phone conversation, the judge warned Copeland's brother that he was planning a rant-and-rave performance for the courtroom and Copeland should not take it personally, it was just necessary to keep the wife from suspecting "the fix is in."
Copeland hasn't been charged in the FBI's courthouse corruption investigation. Bodenheimer, a 50-year-old career prosecutor who won election to the bench in 1999, initially claimed innocence -- until scraps of the FBI bugs of his phone conversations started leaking out.
When another judge refused to quash the tapes, he pleaded guilty. Bodenheimer has been off the bench, and under house arrest, since June 2002.
It turns out that even his attempts to discredit his critics backfired. One of the charges in the indictment is that he planted three of the painkilling pills Oxycontin in a neighbor's truck -- only to find out the neighbor was an FBI informant.
Bruce Van Voorhis
This California judge hasn't heard of Emily Post.
Until judge Bruce Van Voorhis came along with his Judge Dread routine, California had never removed a judge for rotten demeanor alone.
But as the state's judicial performance commission observed, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Van Voorhis took rudeness to new realms that qualified as abuse of authority and embroilment.
One target was a prosecutor, three months out of law school, who was nonplused by erratic evidentiary rulings that the judge forced down her objecting throat. He later insisted it was a sort of tough-love session, designed to show her the importance of anticipating the unexpected even if one has a slam-dunk case.
Rookie female prosecutors had it the worst. One noted for the commission that the young women were the most vulnerable because they felt they had to show that they could "take it" without complaining. But others were humiliated as well.
The judge berated a defense attorney, examining a witness in front of a jury, with, "Now you need to ask him the question that you learned in law school is a legitimate question." He told a deputy public defender who was born in Ecuador that however "charming" his way of speaking, he should "lose the accent."
Jurors wrote complaints after they passed a note to the judge asking for a clarification and instead he did a number on them for a grammar error in the note.
The judge said he is misunderstood. He also admits it's getting worse, not better. In 1992, six years after Van Voorhis was elected, the commission sanctioned him for being harsh with his staff, intimidating with counsel and inflexible with jurors.
In 1994, there was another reproof. Last year he was semi-sidelined, assigned to hear only small claims and fender-bender cases. On Feb. 27, the judicial conduct commission took him off the bench altogether.
Van Voorhis' attorney said he'll ask the state supreme court to rule on whether being a jerk -- by itself -- is ground for a judge to be ousted.
A judge with a God complex and a gulag.
The state's judicial conduct board concluded in mid-February that Gerald Trudel, a judge in Michigan Circuit Court, Allen Park, should be removed from office for abusing county workers, taking unearned vacations and faking illness.
He's been suspended since July 2002, pending the Michigan Supreme Court acting on the conduct board's recommendation.
The judge had a fondness for driving his staff into opposing camps with arbitrary rewards and punishments, the board alleges. It says he secretly used city money, without authorization, to rent a second courthouse without running water or working toilets -- and exiled those who were out of favor to the gulag.
Meanwhile, he set out for palmier climes. The board reported that he tried to take seven months vacation in three years, disguising much of it as medical leave for depression, while taking trips to Newport Beach, Calif.
We may be seeing a trend here that helps explain judicial thought. One of the allegations against Trudel is that he referred to himself as "God."
California's Bruce Van Voorhis explained his gush of anger in the courtroom as being comparable to the frustration Jesus felt when he saw the money changers in the temple. And in Texas, Richard W.B. Davis -- a lawyer who almost made our cut -- sent notes about how critics' comments struck him as being like defecation on Mt. Sinai.
Rodney P. Owens
Gaining a pension after avoiding the tax man.
Rodney P. Owens fought his judicial conduct commission just long enough -- from his July 2002 suspension until Jan. 6, 2003 -- that it was irrefutable that he had been on the bench for a decade and so would have a vested pension.
Then the district judge from Little Rock, Ark., quit.
The commission urged his ouster for tax avoidance. He had bought a 37-foot, 1989 Vogue IV, a trailer worth about $103,000, and then paid an extra $1,000 to have it fraudulently registered in Oregon, which has no sales or use tax on vehicles.
When he discovered the investigation was under way, Owens paid about $10,000 in taxes, interest and penalties. Now his attorney is appealing, alleging six major errors, e.g., that the trial judge did not give the jury the option of convicting on the lesser offense of failing to register a vehicle.
Charles E. Low Jr.
Woman kept 'on the side' while her case was in court.
When April 14 came, so did a reprimand from the judicial conduct commission against Judge Charles E. Lowe, a Pike County, Ky., Circuit Court judge, for having a sexual relationship with a litigant.
"The conduct of the judge shocks the conscience of the commission," said the chairman, Stephen D. Wolnitzek, adding that Lowe could have been removed from office if he hadn't already resigned.
The judge restricted his resignation to one sentence, and has not been available to comment on the sworn declarations that Debbi Mullins gave the commission. She and her husband had adopted a baby girl, and were frightened when the birth mother tried to back out of the agreement. Mullins said a cousin worked for Lowe and told him she would do anything to keep the child.
"He took me up on it," wrote Mullins, adding that she became the judge's "on the side" for five years, the length of time it took the adoption to become final.
Thomas B. Woodard
A 'touchy-feely' guy where women were concerned.
The competition is always tough for judicial horndog of the year, but Judge Thomas B. Woodard, 52, of the Pickens County, Ala., juvenile court, wins the title going away.
And going away is just what he did, negotiating his retirement two days before the state's conduct commission was opening hearings into the case it had made against him for touching, hugging and kissing women and girls in his courtroom.
The judge had served a six-month suspension for the same thing eight years earlier, and had been indefinitely suspended again as of August 2002.
In one alleged incident, he held a 10-year-old girl in his arms for 15 minutes while counseling her, concluding with a kiss. In another, he questioned a crying teenager, insisting on knowing how many people she had slept with. When she finally replied, he called her a "whore."
And then there was the troublesome case in which he didn't recuse himself even though he was dating the defendant; he ruled for her in a child support case and, in an assault case against her, sentenced her to probation.
Until the end, his attorney insisted Woodard's only problem was that he was a "touchy-feely kind of guy."
Francis X. Golniewicz Jr.
Jurors felt unappreciated, as did lots of others.
Appointed to the bench in 1991 by the Illinois Supreme Court, Judge Francis X. Golniewicz of the Cook County Circuit Court was the son of a respected judge.
But in less than a year, complaints started about his bullying, profane ways, like the time he lectured a black defendant: "When I'm talking to you, boy, you look at me."
The stories finally made it to the judicial inquiry board, and Golniewicz was removed from judicial duties as of June 2002 until his case is resolved.
According to the conduct board, he "engaged in rude, inappropriate, undignified, prejudicial and biased behavior," toward defendants and witnesses, including using profanity in open court.
What he said, his lawyer insisted, was "friggin.' " And for the judge, "boy" is not a racial epithet.
Stories about how Golniewicz derided jurors may pose his biggest hurdle to getting back on the bench. In one case, according to the judicial board complaint, the judge said he was not signing the certificates of appreciation routinely given to jurors for their service.
Remarking that jurors didn't deserve it, Golniewicz purportedly tore up the papers and threw them in the trash in view of the departing jurors.
A ballet with the bottle falls flat at judges' conference.
OK, the rules we set for each year's list of judicial shenanigans exclude the routine ticket-fixers and those (re)arrested for drunken driving -- because there's usually a dozen of each, and they're pathetic in any case.
But Broward County, Fla., Family Law Judge Joyce Julian's ballet with the bottle qualifies her as anything but a garden-variety drinker. And, voters decided last fall, it also disqualifies her from sitting in judgment on others. It was the first time in a decade that an incumbent Florida judge failed to win re-election.
The incident occurred at the state judges' annual conference, with 450 attendees, at the posh Amelia Island Plantation near Jacksonville, Fla.
Security reports describe the 44-year-old judge cutting quite a figure on the first night: verbally abusing a valet, crashing a private party, announcing she wanted to "pick up a cowboy" and drinking until she was falling down on the lounge dance floor.
She was spotted at 3 a.m. lying on a floor in a hotel corridor, rising to take off her pants and trying to hide behind an ice maker. That's when the really bad stuff started.
By way of cover-up, the half-naked judge told a Nassau County, Fla., sheriff's deputy someone had spiked her drink and sexually assaulted her. In a victim's report, she fingered a man in a long, dark, leather coat. She recanted it, then refiled it.
After a two-week investigation, the authorities concluded that the story was a lie. Her attorney, citing blackout problems, negotiated a stint in rehab, and all charges were dropped.
James I. Aaron
Judge sniffs, others smell a big stench from the bench.
When Fresno County, Calif., Superior Court Judge James I. Aaron presided over drug court, he'd order defendants to approach the bench and smell their hair to determine if they were playing by the rules.
It turned out, however, that the stench came from the other side of the bench.
Last July, the state commission issued a public censure that the judge stipulated to as part of his agreement to step down within five days.
Besides deriding the drug-sniffing, the censure states that the judge helped run a ponzi scheme out of his chambers.
A Fresno businessman named Kenneth Roper recruited the judge and gave him a $20,000 finder's fee to bring in investors. The judge talked up the get-rich potential of it, while neglecting to mention to potential suckers that he hadn't put his own money in or that he got kick-backs for everyone he signed up.
Fresno lawyer David Mudridge said he finally invested $2,500 -- but not because he expected to make any money. Mudridge said he'd go for a court appearance and the judge would take him into chambers to discuss investments, so Mudridge finally agreed "to get him off my back."
Aaron told court staff that Roper and any investors had primo access. If they phoned, they were put through to the judge even if he was on the bench.
When the scheme collapsed, Aaron agreed to cooperate with investigators. Roper is now doing time.
Aaron's attorney says the judge and Roper went to the same church, and Aaron never thought the scheme was illegal. He adds that Aaron, 60, was planning to retire anyway.
Danny Ray Wells
A judge puts on the bite in West Virginia.
What is it about West Virginia judges putting the bite on people during bail hearings?
To celebrate Law Day 1998, The National Law Journal recounted how Judge Joseph Troisi lost it -- as well as his job -- when he came off the bench after a bail proceeding to bite a defendant on the nose.
This year, Logan County Magistrate Danny Ray Wells was convicted of shaking down those who came to his courtroom to try to help friends and loved ones.
The way it worked -- from January 2000 to last summer -- is that he would tell, say, the mother of an arrestee that she must pay $300 in "special, nonrefundable bonds" to a mysterious man who appeared to be a bondsman or the runner for a bondsman.
Then the judge would free the defendant on a personal recognizance bond, which doesn't require any payment, and pocket the cash. The man, John Nagy, a former court marshal, said that he and Wells would go into chambers afterward and split the take down the middle.
The prosecution initially alleged that Wells, 51, accepted not only cash but also sex. A woman testified that she believed the only way to free her husband was to take Wells up on his offer to have intercourse with him at night in the magistrate's lunch room.
Wells denied all the allegations, insisting that Nagy had run the bond racket by himself. The jury concluded that the prosecution hadn't proved the sex part, but convicted Wells of bribery and extortion.
The state supreme court suspended Wells without pay in October 2002. Two weeks after his March 3 conviction, he resigned.J.A.I.L. is an acronym for Judicial Accountability Initiative Law
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