Richard Roberts. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)
A misconduct complaint against former Chief Judge Richard Roberts of the federal district court in Washington has been dismissed.
The dismissal order, dated March 18, does not name Roberts. It refers to a D.C. district court judge who retired on March 16. Roberts retired on March 16, the same day a civil lawsuit was filed in Utah that accused him of sexual abuse 35 years ago.
The order dismissing the complaint, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit received on March 11, did not specify the nature of the allegations. The Utah attorney general’s office filed a misconduct complaint in the D.C. Circuit against Roberts earlier this month related to the sex abuse allegations, which that office investigated. But a spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office said Tuesday that the agency had not received information about the status of its misconduct complaint against Roberts.
The dismissal order cited the judge’s retirement in closing the misconduct case. The order was signed by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit as “acting chief judge.” The Washington Post first reported the Utah attorney general’s office’s misconduct complaint.
D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland, who was nominated last week to the U.S. Supreme Court, recused from the Roberts misconduct complaint because of his “longstanding professional relationship” with the judge, according to a statement on Tuesday from the court.
The civil lawsuit in federal district court in Utah accuses Roberts of sexual assault 35 years ago against a woman who was 16 years old at the time and a witness in a case he handled as a federal prosecutor. Roberts denied the assault allegations but said through his lawyers at Steptoe & Johnson LLP that he did have an “intimate relationship” with the woman.
Steptoe white-collar partner Jason Weinstein, a lawyer for Roberts, declined to comment.
According to the March 18 order closing the misconduct case, the complaint alleged that the judge “engaged in conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts.”
Henderson dismissed the misconduct case as “no longer necessary because of intervening events,” citing the federal law that governs management of judicial misconduct matters. The complainant can petition the Judicial Council for the D.C. Circuit—a group of district and appeals judges—to review Henderson’s order within 42 days.
With Roberts now retired, there wouldn’t be any discipline that the Judicial Council could impose, according to judicial ethics expert Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law. The council’s discipline options include temporarily blocking a judge from handling cases or issuing a public or private reprimand.
At most, Roberts could have faced impeachment by Congress if he were still on the bench, but that punishment was now moot, Gillers said in an email to The National Law Journal.
Roberts said in his March 16 retirement letter to the White House that he was stepping down for disability reasons. He did not provide any details about the nature of the disability. A source familiar with Roberts’ retirement told the NLJ that his stepping down was unrelated to the Utah allegations and that he began the disability certification process before learning about the woman’s allegations.
A letter certifying Roberts’ disability, dated March 15, was attached to his retirement letter to the White House. The certification letter was signed by Henderson, acting as chief judge. According to the court, Garland recused because of his professional ties to Roberts. The two were federal prosecutors in Washington in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In two recent misconduct cases, the federal district judges who were the subject of complaints remained on the bench during internal court investigations. In Montana, former federal district judge Richard Cebull retired around the same time that an ethics investigation into racist emails that the judge sent from his government account concluded in mid-2013.
Former Alabama federal district judge Mark Fuller in 2015 notified the White House that he planned to resign while an ethics investigation was underway related to his arrest on domestic-abuse allegations. The Judicial Council of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an order before Fuller’s resignation took effect that said Fuller’s conduct “might constitute one or more grounds for impeachment.”
After Fuller stepped down, the Judicial Conference of the United States said in a letter to Congress that it had found “substantial evidence” that Fuller abused his wife and committed other misconduct. It wasn’t clear at the time whether Fuller could face any discipline, since he was no longer a judge, but the Judicial Conference wrote that its findings would at least serve as a “public censure.”
This story was updated to clarify that Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson issued the dismissal order as acting chief judge, and not the Judicial Council for the D.C. Circuit.
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