THE WORKDAY HAD ENDED in Whatcom County District Court, Bellingham, on August 27, 1998. But Judge Edward Ross was still hearing from attorneys standing around chatting. One, a public defender new to the job, had gone to the same school, Tulane, as a deputy prosecutor. Ross lit up.
"Is she one of the babes you bagged in law school?" he asked the prosecutor.
Ross subsequently apologized. But a few months later, at a luncheon, he gossiped aloud that the defender might have slept her way into her job and found himself facing a disciplinary action. Last December, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) ordered Ross to undergo gender bias training.
As misconduct cases go, it wasn't major. But rather than concede boorish behavior, Ross, in his defense, blamed it all on brain damage.
Though he hadn't raised the claim before, Ross told the CJC an accident in June 1998 had left him with "a significant brain injury" in addition to nerve damage and broken bones. It is, he argued, "typical for persons with a severe brain injury to make spontaneous statements without any advance idea what the contents of the statement will be."
He was also taking steroids, he noted, and couldn't remember the babe remark.
The judge has since accepted a state misconduct admonishment. He also has convinced all parties involved that his mental condition was only temporary. He remains on the bench until at least 2003.
THE PRECEDING was a public service announcement for anyone shopping for a Washington judge without significant brain damage.
Here's another tip: Don't look in Pierce County.
The county may or may not have the worst judges in the state, but based on current statistics, it has become the asylum for jurists most often disciplined in Washington. Of 14 state public disciplinary actions taken in the last two years against judges in the state's 39 counties, more than half (eight) were from Pierce County.
Is it something in the water or the famously redolent air?
"You apparently mistook the Tacoma Aroma as emanating from ASARCO," says Seattle University law professor John Strait. More likely, "it was from a minority of Pierce County local judges."
The arguable leader of the pack is now-defrocked wheeling-dealing Pierce County Superior Court Judge Grant Anderson. Close by is Sumner muni Judge Gene "Hammerin' Man" Hammermaster (see story p. 25). And who can forget kind-hearted Ralph Baldwin, former Lakewood municipal judge, who invited lawyers and jurors into his chamber for a cold beer to celebrate the end of a drunk-driving case.
But as Strait says, they're in the minority. The state's court watchdog, the CJC, receives as many as 300 judicial complaints a year, mainly from critics dissatisfied with the outcome of a trial. Only a handful make it to the last of the semiconfidential four-stage complaint process (filing, investigation, hearing, and decision).
In other words, most state judges simply do the jobs they're asked. Not counting commissioners and magistrates, 417 jurists are at work in Washington, says Kip Stilz, head of the Washington State District and Municipal Judges Association, and they toil diligently. But conduct rules are integral to a free and fair justice system. "It is very important that instances of misconduct be corrected because," says Stilz, "absent enforcement, the public's confidence in its judiciary will suffer."
Particularly in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. At one point a year ago, four judges from Pierce County faced public charges at the same time—a dilemma so unprecedented that County Council member Harold Moss pushed through new legislation limiting the amount of compensation that could be paid to defend judges in misconduct cases. David Akana, head of the CJC (comprised of three judges, two lawyers, and six citizens appointed by the governor), says there's no rhyme or reason to the outbreak of misconduct in Pierce County.
"Our business is complaint driven," he says. Simply, "We take the complaints as they are filed."
THE FIRST SITTING JUDGE to be removed in the now 20-year history of the CJC was King County District Court Judge John Ritchie. He was unseated in 1994 for improperly billing taxpayers almost $3,000 for personal phone costs and out-of-state vacations. King County judges have had few misconduct run-ins since, unless you count Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, who lives in Bellevue and upon being sworn into office in 1996 thought it prudent to express his views at an anti-abortion rally outside his chambers.
But just after King County District Court Presiding Judge David Steiner this month told us the county has "a judicial culture that places a very high value on judicial ethics," the CJC announced the discipline of two county judges. One, Harry Slusher, a superior court commissioner, was found to have had an undisclosed social relationship with a therapist who testified before him in a child custody case (Slusher resigned in 1998). The other, Superior Court Judge Jim Bates, was suspended 30 days without pay for misconduct a decade ago when, as he noted in his defense, "standards of office conduct were different." The charges included making improper phone calls and tasteless comments about crime photos. In a rare move, Bates agreed to the CJC's censure— suspension and two days of sensitivity training—even before the settlement could automatically be reviewed by the State Supreme Court. (Bates, 52, who had his admirers, died suddenly this week at his Bellevue home. He had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer.)
Judicial misconduct, of course, reaches far beyond Puget Sound, and the past two years, which saw one Eastern Washington judge jailed for rape, have unfortunately been the most productive statewide since 1996, a very good bad year: Merle Wilcox, former Island County District Court judge, resigned after he was censured for beating his wife, Grant County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Jorgensen was censured for falling asleep on the bench, and Clark County District Court Judge Randal B. Fritzler was censured for having a sexual relationship with a female court employee—whose attorney husband often appeared in Fritzler's court.
BASED ON A COMPILATION of actual judicial misconduct and not arguable court actions, here are some of the more memorable 1998-99 cases of Washington law and disorder. Details are based on CJC files and other public and court records.
Grant Anderson, Pierce County Superior Court: The beat goes on. Dramatically removed from the bench last year on misconduct charges brought by the state CJC, Anderson now faces new misconduct allegations: giving false testimony and filing false or misleading documents in defense of the earlier charges. The CJC found Anderson received undisclosed payments for a Cadillac El Dorado, allowing a friend to pay the $31,000 installment tab that began about the time Anderson was sworn into office in 1993. The friend in return had bought a bowling alley at a bargain $200,000 from Anderson, who sold it from the estate of a deceased client. At a hearing before the state Supreme Court, justices were told the bowling alley made $180,000 a year in net earnings and the property was appraised at $1.2 million. As a $200,000 deal, "That's better than the stock market," said Justice Dennis Sweeney. Anderson has since paid $500,000 to settle a legal claim lodged by the estate's main beneficiary. "Grant Anderson was for sale," CJC attorney Paul Taylor says.
Charles Baechler, Pend Oreille District Court: pleaded guilty to criminal charges of sexual assaulting a woman who appeared in his courtroom. The victim, who had been a DWI offender, was also being divorced by her husband. Baechler himself served her the papers, then offered to let her stay at his lake cabin, where he attacked her. The CJC dropped its misconduct proceedings when the judge resigned. For the assault he was given two years probation and 30 days of electronic home monitoring.
Rudolph Tollefson, Pierce County Superior Court: is accused by the CJC of assorted misconduct dating back to 1997 including claims that the judge, upset at a court employee, chased her out of court and down a hallway, continuing his rant outside the elevator. He also allegedly chewed out another judge in a dispute over his courtroom and parking assignments. Tollefson denies the charges but admits his conduct was improper in berating the employee and has apologized.
W. Fred Aronow, Commissioner, Spokane County Superior Court: was accused of engaging excessively in military reserve business, of tardiness, and of misconduct toward a female employee, allegedly calling her "foxy lady . . . young chick . . . sexy," asking if she and her husband had just "had a quickie in the parking lot," and wondering if her husband had "showered before he jumped your bones." He was suspended one month without pay.
Ralph Baldwin, Lakewood Municipal Court: was charged with inviting attorneys to share half a case of beer with him in his chambers while awaiting the outcome of a drunk-driving case. He later asked jurors to join him, observing, "I bet you never met a judge like me before." At the end of the day, he drove off with a beer in hand. An apologetic Baldwin subsequently resigned. "I should have offered them something other than an alcoholic beverage," he opined, "maybe a Tootsie Pop. . . ."
A'lan Hutchinson, Pierce County District Court: cited for appearing as a character witness in another court on behalf of a minister charged with child molestation. The charge of misusing the influential power of his position was later dismissed, but in 1995, he was censured for remarks he made to two gender-changing men who wanted to change their names to female as well. He lost his bid for reelection last year.
Ralph Turco, Tacoma Municipal Court: was charged with knocking his wife to her knees at a church music recital less than a week after he was admonished for making insensitive remarks in domestic violence cases. He was censured and his removal recommended, but opted not to seek reelection. He was earlier disciplined for flipping a coin to decide a case.