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George Washington was unable to tell a lie when confronted about the cherry tree he cut down. But a tree-chopping federal appeals court judge in Seattle has caused an uproar among the city’s residents, and led many to question whether the judge has been as forthright as their state’s namesake. Judge Jerome Farris, a 72-year-old senior judge for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has been under the spotlight since August, when 120 big-leaf maple and indigenous cherry trees in a public park near his home were discovered cut to the stump. An investigation quickly determined that the 40-year-old trees were razed on the judge’s orders so as to improve his view of Lake Washington. The judge has said that the unauthorized logging was the result of a misunderstanding with his gardener, and he has agreed to pay the city for the cost of restoring the park, which estimates place between $100,000 and $200,000. According to news reports, Farris mistakenly believed he had the right to trim the view-obstructing trees because of a permit he had obtained in 1981. (The permit, it turns out, did not authorize future cuttings.) Moreover, the judge had apparently asked his gardener to trim only a small number of trees, but because of a language barrier, his Vietnamese-born gardener took things too far, the judge claims. Farris could not be reached for comment. Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time a judge has landed in hot water for chopping down trees. In 2000, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Peter McBrien was charged with felony vandalism for felling eight 80-year-old trees in a protected nature reserve in order to improve his view of the nearby American River. McBrien pleaded no contest and the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor. The latest incident, however, has sparked outrage in Seattle, where editorials in the major newspapers have decried a “massacre” and clamored for justice. “He absolutely should have known better,” said Lauren Braden, the advocate for wildlife habitat at the Audubon Society’s Seattle chapter. “Our phone is ringing off the hook from citizens wanting to know what they can do to pressure the city to not let this fall off the radar screen.” On Monday, the case took a controversial turn when King County prosecutor Norm Maleng announced that his office would not file criminal felony charges against the judge. According to a statement released by Maleng, the facts of the case did not fit within the state’s malicious mischief law, a statute designed to prosecute vandalism. “The apparent misunderstanding is important here — it tends to negate the mental element that must be proven, that of maliciousness,” said Maleng. “A prosecution would fail,” he concluded, “because there is no evidence of malicious intent.” As a result, Maleng said, he was turning the case over to the Seattle city attorney’s office. Kathryn Harper, a spokeswoman for City Attorney Tom Carr, said a decision on how the city will proceed will likely be issued next week. The city is currently weighing whether to file criminal charges or pursue a civil suit, or both. Judge Farris could face up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, or a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, depending on whether the city goes with misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges. Harper declined to comment on what kind of monetary damages the city would seek in the event of a civil suit. “People are very protective of the trees up here,” said Harper. But she said the city did not feel any extra pressure to prosecute Farris because of the high-profile nature of the case. “We’re listening to everybody,” she said. “We don’t feel any added pressure. We’ve taken this case very seriously from the start.”

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