While substantiating allegations that a U.S. magistrate judge had inappropriately pursued social relationships with a female attorney who practices before him and a female court employee, the Fifth Circuit’s disciplinary body declined to either reprimand or identify the jurist in a recent order.
According to the order released by The Judicial Council of the Fifth Circuit, the Fifth Circuit’s Chief Judge Carl Stewart identified a complaint after receiving information regarding possible inappropriate behavior by the magistrate judge, and referred the matter to a special committee for investigation.
The special committee later determined that the magistrate judge had inappropriately pursued social relationships with the two women, but found no evidence that inappropriate physical contact was attempted by the judge. The committee also found no evidence that the judge used his position to coerce either woman to socialize with him.
“However, the special committee determined that the subject judge was insensitive to his position of power over both women and the difficulty they would feel in turning down his repeated invitations to dinner and drinks,” Stewart wrote in the order. “It further determined that he was not mindful of this impropriety of socializing with them in a manner that was intended to be or could have been construed as being romantic, and which included the discussion of private, personal matters.”
The order also noted that the special committee met with the judge and expressed to him its serious concerns about his interactions with the women. The special committee also found that the judge evidenced a clear understanding of why his behavior was problematic, took responsibility for his behavior and expressed a willingness to make amends.
“In particular, the subject judge composed and has sent written apologies to the two women in question. He further represented, both in those apologies and in person to the special committee, that he would respect the confidentiality of the two women, and would not retaliate against or disparage them personally or professionally,” Stewart wrote. “The special committee found the subject judge’s contrition and representations to be sincere.”
The Judicial council accepted the special committee’s recommendation to conclude the proceeding rather than reprimand him because appropriate corrective action had been taken.
And pursuant to The Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980, the council determined that the name of the judge should not be disclosed.
Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who is an expert in federal judicial discipline, said it’s important to note that the judicial council did not find that the judge had committed misconduct. While magistrate judges can be removed from office by the judicial council under the 1980 act for misconduct, that rule does not apply to Article III judges who can only be removed from office for misconduct through impeachment by Congress.
“To have fired him over this, they would have to find this to be misconduct. And it looks like they were not quite ready to say that,” Hellman said. “I guess as a legal matter they are leaving that for another day. But I think it’s a very strong message for other judges not to do this sort of thing.’’
Hellman also believes the judicial council declined to name the magistrate judge because of the “forward-looking” perspective of the 1980 act, which he explained was not written with the intention of punishing judges but rather forwarding the administration of justice through making them better jurists.
“Since he will be staying in office, I can understand why they would think he would be a less effective judge if [people] knew who he was,” Hellman said. “And they don’t say this, but in identifying the judge, it may make it easier for the people in that district to know who the women were.’’
Hellman noted that the judicial council had another option for dealing with the accused magistrate judge.
“If they were concerned that disclosing his identity would make him less effective, they could have issued a private reprimand. That is one of the options under the act. They might have done that to underscore the seriousness of the behavior,” Hellman said.
“I think they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish without disclosing the name,” Hellman added. “But from the standpoint of appearance, it might have looked better if they issued a private reprimand.’’