Bad News From the Bench

Arbiters of justice have demons just like the rest of us.

As arbiters of justice, judges are often viewed as beatific creatures, immune from the foibles that plague the rest of us. Wrong! Judges behave badly too, as King County Bar Association president Richard Mitchell observed at a forum last week. While he was reluctant to name names, the latest report from the state body that disciplines judges provides some pretty interesting reading.

Over the last couple of years, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct has sanctioned judges for patronizing and threatening a prostitute (former Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht), doing a hit-and-run while driving under the influence (Judge John Lyman of Tenino and Tumwater municipal courts) and making wildly inappropriate and even frightening comments (various judges).

For example, Judge John Henry of Garfield County District Court. From a 2010 stipulation that discusses a conversation between Henry ("respondent") and a female attorney ("attorney A"): "The topic of camping arose. Attorney A recalls that she casually told respondent that she did not enjoy camping and that he replied, 'Oh, if I got you stripped naked in the lake and soaped you down, you'd like it.' "

Henry, naturally, "does not recall his comment exactly this way," according to the stipulation, but recognized that he made some kind of "incautious" and "sexually suggestive" remark. Then later that month, he took another female attorney riding on his motorcycle, parked at a "rural, remote location," and, according to the attorney, asked if he could kiss her. (The judge "does not recall asking that," according to the document.)

The Commission also admonished King County District Court Judge Frank LaSalata in 2012 for "engaging in discourteous and intolerant behavior" toward an intern serving as a deputy prosecutor. According to the intern and a defense attorney present at the time, the judge threatened to "rip her head off" if she ever interrupted him again. (LaSalata's not-so-exculpatory version: He said he would verbally rip her head off.)

The good news? Such findings by the Commission are relatively rare. The Commission sanctioned 13 judges in the past three years, even though it had received hundreds of complaints. Most of those came from people who lost in court and blamed the judge for bias, according to Commission executive director Reiko Callner.

Then again, the Commission may not be hearing from some of the most credible sources. As a recent judicial-candidates forum underscored, judges and lawyers are often reluctant to tattle on their peers.

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