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Call it “gavelitis.” Something comes over a tiny percentage of those who sit in judgment of the rest of us, and weird things start happening — things involving firecrackers, wild turkeys and lingerie catalogs. Some judges suddenly think they have a license to do anything, including one judge in Arkansas who decided he had a license to issue licenses. Welcome to the fifth annual survey of, for lack of a better term, the stench from the bench. Here are 10 judges and ex-judges who won’t be presiding this May 1, Law Day, and whose absence is cause for celebration. Some are on suspension, others have been ousted and a growing number have resigned while under investigation by state conduct bodies. These aren’t garden-variety ticket fixers or sad-sack drunks. You won’t find the poor guy who was caught by a hidden camera at Wal-Mart, swigging stolen pills at a drinking fountain. This is truly amazing misconduct, hard to explain, except to say it’s downright injudicious. PATRICK COUWENBERG Then I rescued Lois Lane at the Eiffel Tower… Judges under scrutiny usually clean up their act when a watchdog commission summons them. But Patrick Couwenberg of Los Angeles County Superior Court did just the opposite. The more investigators questioned him, the wilder and woollier his tales became. First the question was whether he inflated his education and past employment on his application for a judgeship. He claimed a degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. His real alma mater: a junior college. He falsely said he had a master’s degree. He fudged dates so no one would guess he had to take the state bar exam six times to pass. He said he’d worked for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher — the Los Angeles firm had no record of it. At his enrobing ceremony, he conned a judge into introducing him as a Renaissance man who’d earned a Purple Heart in the Army in Vietnam. The reality was he stayed home with the Naval Reserves. OK, he finally told investigators, maybe he had made mistakes and his jokes misled people. But he really had been recruited by a shadowy fellow named Jack who he assumed was with the CIA, and The Company attached him to a Laotian general for clandestine operations alongside Scandinavian mercenaries in Southeast Asia. California’s Commission on Judicial Performance observed “a lack of honesty is an ongoing problem.” His attorney maintained his prevaricating was a treatable mental quirk caused by his being born in a refugee camp in Japanese-occupied Java. By that time the commission had stopped listening. It removed him from office last August. BARBARA BROWN Intensely Manhattan, her guy’s ready to take you on While visiting a Cash-Mart, one of those companies that makes loans against future paychecks, Judge Barbara Brown of the Bernalillo County, N.M., Metropolitan Court reportedly told an employee, “Do you know who I am? I’m a judge.” Using the prestige of her office to try to advance her financial interests was just one of seven allegations the state Judicial Standards Commission presented to the state Supreme Court last fall. The court ordered Brown suspended indefinitely as of Nov. 29 — first with a paycheck, then without. Another allegation is that she used the prestige of her office to aid the private interests of her housemate, one Richard “Dickie” Hone. Brown sat as a criminal court judge for a decade, but her office’s prestige has been a dwindling commodity since last year when her name started appearing in newspapers linked with Hone’s in one incident after another. Cash-Mart refused her the loan, according to police, who say she and Hone responded by throwing rocks at the employee. The conduct commission concluded: “While in a public place, [Brown] engaged in violent, abusive conduct, which created a clear and present danger to others.” Brown says Cash-Mart was ripping her off, she never threw a rock, the police are out to smear her and she is eager for her day in court. That day, however, was recently delayed when new charges were filed against her over allegedly threatening calls to a probation officer who had been assigned to her courtroom and who apparently doesn’t get along with Hone. A fax she sent to the probation officer is said to have warned him that her friend is a former professional kickboxer and “Mr. Hone says anywhere — anytime.” The judge explained to reporters that Hone just has an “intense, Manhattan style” that plays poorly in New Mexico. STEVEN RAY KARTO Ohio judge wasn’t afraid to play many parts in court Steven Ray Karto was the only judge in Harrison County, Ohio. Maybe that’s why his Common Pleas courtroom started looking like his own little world. The climax came when he initiated and presided over a contempt hearing, came off the bench to play prosecutor, then whipped off his robes to testify as a witness. That’s how he became a defendant. At his disciplinary hearing, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer was incredulous. “You’re saying a judge can testify in a case and then decide that case? Wow.” Noting dryly that a judge’s impartiality is called into doubt when he also makes the closing argument in a case, the court suspended Karto for six months on Jan. 16. The state Office of the Judicial Counsel brought other charges, most involving the use of contempt powers and all coming under the heading of what the disciplinary office called “using the tools of his court for his own purposes.” Karto held one defendant in contempt but refused to pass sentence, blocking an appeal. Another person held in contempt couldn’t appeal because the judge never filed a complaint, assigned a case number or kept a written record. When the judge tangled with a county official, he told the man’s wife, also a county employee, that he wouldn’t pursue a contempt case against her if she quit. Then there was a bizarre juvenile detention hearing. Two boys said they had counsel but the judge went ahead without the attorney present and made the boys question a witness themselves. Karto said he regretted any mistakes and never intended to intimidate anyone. A. EUGENE HAMMERMASTER He had zero tolerance for people he disliked His nickname is “The Hammerin’ Man,” and A. Eugene Hammermaster, a municipal judge in Pierce County, Wash., had enough friends that he got a second chance after being disciplined in 1999 for trampling on the rights of poor or unrepresented defendants. In April 2000, Hammermaster completed a six-month suspension. He agreed to stop threatening to impose life sentences for unpaid fines and not to hold any more trials in absentia, even though he was unrepentant. He said everyone knew it was a joke when he told defendants they’d spend their lives in “The Crowbar Hotel” over minor fines. It benefited defendants to hold their trials in their absence, he said. The Sumner, Wash., city council reappointed him. Cynics suggested it was because his stiff fines brought in a lot of money — and the guilty pleasure some derived from seeing a judge who appeared to be channeling Archie Bunker Hammermaster didn’t disappoint. Accounts stacked up of his ordering Hispanics to learn English, unwed couples to marry and those driving with suspended licenses to sell their cars. Undesirables were banished from town. One transcript shows him humiliating an unemployed mental patient. The state Commission on Judicial Conduct came calling again. Last December, the Hammerin’ Man, 67, cut a deal. He agreed to step down and to promise never to so much as sit as a temporary judge, in return for the commission’s dropping its investigation. DAVID F. CRENSHAW “Hello, probate court and mortgages” It’s tempting to say David F. Crenshaw was moonlighting, but he ran his mortgage company out of his Twiggs County, Ga., courtroom on Main Street in Jeffersonville for 18 months in broad daylight. A county commissioner got suspicious when a customer asked for help filing out a loan application at 9 a.m. The county had had other run-ins with the probate judge, who retaliated for what he considered a stingy budget by impounding fees, fines and forfeitures due the county. He complained the commissioners had a witch hunt on for him. The voters loved him, electing him to seven four-year terms. And the commissioners let him hire an extra employee in 1998 when he said he needed more help. What they didn’t know was that she mostly worked for The Mortgage Team of Georgia Inc., which had the same address as the court. “I filed some tickets one time,” she said, describing her official work. “That took maybe 15 minutes. I worked on two elections. Maybe five or six hours.” At a Judicial Qualifications Commission hearing, Crenshaw and his wife took the Fifth Amendment some 80 times. Before the panel could act, a special prosecutor charged him with theft and in a plea bargain he agreed to resign, never run for judge again and pay restitution. VICTOR I. BARRON Voice on the secret tape: ‘I put my neck on the line’ The personal injury case before Justice Victor I. Barron was tragic: A driver in a rented car ran into a car in which a baby girl was blinded and brain-damaged. The rental company agreed to settle for $4.9 million, including $1.6 million for the baby’s lawyer, Gary Berenholtz. Then, according to prosecutors, things got nasty. They allege that the Brooklyn, N.Y., Supreme Court trial judge told the attorney he wouldn’t approve the settlement unless he got a $250,000 kickback, later reduced to $115,000 on the installment plan. When Berenholtz balked, the indictment continues, the judge threatened not only to reject the settlement but also to smear the attorney’s name based on a possible conflict of interest involved in his representing both the baby and the mother early in the suit. The judge says he’s not guilty. His counsel alleges that the attorney was a corrupt accomplice who waited a suspicious six months to call the authorities. Another defense is that the judge never identifies himself on a tape made when Berenholtz wore a wire to go into chambers with the first $18,000. The transcript reads like a grade B movie script, with talking over the sounds of $100 bills changing hands. Berenholtz says, “It’s a very difficult thing.” “Gary, excuse me,” replies a voice that no one denies sounds like Barron. “Not a lot more difficult than if there was no fee. I put my neck on the line. I look like an idiot, all right?” “All right, all right — take it easy.” Barron was suspended from the bench indefinitely on the day of his Jan. 22 arrest. The lawyer said he initially agreed to the shakedown to get the settlement signed and hoped it was a joke, then tried to ignore the whole thing for months until the judge phoned demanding the first installment. OLIVER SPURLOCK Hot catalog, hot judge It was their word against his when four women prosecutors accused Circuit Judge Oliver M. Spurlock of Cook County, Ill., of angling for dates, finding excuses to touch them, stealing kisses and generally being a lech. He would comment on their bodies and clothing in suggestive ways, winking and kissing his fingers to show appreciation, they said. One said she was “flabbergasted” to see him sitting on the bench thumbing through a Victoria’s Secret lingerie catalog — in the domestic violence court, no less — and asking what she thought of certain items. There were witnesses, but none from the public defender’s office, whose women said he never hit on them. Spurlock said none of that happened, and in fact he didn’t even like the four prosecutors much, given evidence he’d seen of their incompetence, drinking and racism. It was a frame-up, he testified at his disciplinary hearing, because they didn’t like his rulings. At one stage, his counsel suggested something that sounded like an entrapment defense, contending that the state’s attorney office purposely assigned four attractive prosecutors to the divorced judge’s courtroom in hopes of getting more favorable rulings out of him. Then came the clincher. After first denying it, Spurlock finally admitted he had had sex in chambers with his court reporter, although he insisted it was twice and not three times, as alleged, and it was consensual. And it wouldn’t have denigrated the bench, he chided, if it weren’t for the prosecutor’s “prurient interest” in making it public. The Illinois Courts Commission called him an “embarrassment to the robe” and ordered Spurlock removed from the bench effective Jan. 2. Given his lies, it said, the only question left was whether he should be disbarred. STEVEN W. SMOGER Warned for low blows, fight referee takes a dive He could control Mike Tyson, but not the state Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct. When Steven W. Smoger became an Atlantic County, N.J., municipal judge in 1992, the committee says, it sent him its first letter saying he couldn’t continue his work as a professional boxing referee. There’s no question he’s a first-rate referee — he’s been inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and has sent not only Tyson but Bernard Hopkins and Evander Holyfield to their corners. Still, the committee told him, having a full-time judge in the ring degraded the integrity and impartiality of the bench. Smoger continued to do both. The committee lay low, doing nothing until evidence began to accumulate that the judge was behaving heavy-handedly in the courtroom. In one incident, a traffic defendant didn’t answer when called. When she said, “Excuse me, judge, did you call my name?” the committee says, he issued a bench warrant for her. There were other warrants for defendants who were late or in the hall negotiating with prosecutors when called. One man showed up at 8:35 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. calendar call, only to have Smoger pass him a phone and tell him to try to raise bail. He did, but a mistake left his warrant on the records and he was arrested, strip-searched and sent to jail for a week. He got a $142,500 settlement from the city. In January, a disciplinary hearing was ordered. A couple of days before it, Smoger resigned. ROY THOMAS His private clients had a friend on the bench — him Roy Thomas was just a part-time district judge in Batesville, Ark., but the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission said he provided full-time advocacy for the clients he represented as a lawyer. Take Gerald Swaim. Thomas represented him in his divorce and four days later, as a judge, weighed a domestic abuse charge against Swaim. He released Swaim on his own recognizance and presided at his trial a month later, dismissing the charges. A month later, back before the judge on another domestic abuse charge, he got probation. Sometimes clients of attorney Thomas pleaded guilty when they were before Judge Thomas, and he dismissed charges against them anyway, according to the commission. When one battery victim complained to the commission, the judge purportedly ran into the victim and his son in a convenience store and said they would have to talk “in a more formal setting” where the judge would “teach” him something. The panel said the judge got cheap loans from a Chevrolet dealership over five years during which he also heard cases involving the dealership, ruling for it 43 times and against it once. Then there were the “temporary drivers’ licenses” Thomas was said to have issued without authority to those who had lost their real ones for drunk driving. And the 166 hot checks the judge was alleged to have written, which the commission listed on its Web site. Thomas called the action against him a conspiracy to keep him from running for higher office. But shortly before a disciplinary hearing, he resigned effective Oct. 1, 2001, promising never again to be a judge. ROLAND AMUNDSON He ‘didn’t need the money,’ but he took it anyway When asked why he looted the trust fund of a retarded woman, a contrite Justice Roland Amundson of the Minnesota Court of Appeals said his psychiatrist told him he was self-destructive. In mitigation, his lawyer provided a list of medications he took for diabetes, depression and high blood pressure. The questioner persisted: Why did he think he did it? “I don’t know,” he replied. “I didn’t need the money. I had the money.” Like so much that rogue judges do, it was inexplicable. Amundson was a successful lawyer, a partner in his law firm who upgraded and resold million-dollar homes as a sideline, when he was named a judge in 1988. He had written a will for a close friend and client, Robert Day, who wanted to provide lifetime care for an adult daughter with the mind of a 3-year-old. Day died, and Amundson obtained approval from a judicial ethics board to be the trustee. The trust fund contained more than $600,000. Seven years later, a caregiver for the woman blew the whistle. She had asked for money for a new furnace for the woman’s home and was turned down because only $29,000 was left. Amundson resigned in February, the day before criminal charges were filed against him. He pleaded guilty; sentencing is set for May 22. Prosecutors say he wrote 88 bogus checks over the years, hiding what he was doing from accountants by making up fictitious company names and misidentifying purchases. Money went for marble floors, antiques and bronze sculptures. A $3,354 check bought him a fireplace insert. He fixed a spa and outdoor lighting. Amundson’s attorney says he is making restitution, though he may have to dip into “noncash assets.”

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