by Matt Rosenberg October 3rd, 2010
BACKGROUND: The Washington State Commission On Judicial Conduct investigates allegations of impropriety by judges in local, county and state court systems. It issues disciplinary rulings in each case, ranging from dismissal to “admonishment” or “reprimand” all the way to recommendations to the state Supreme Court for “disqualification” or barring a judge from serving further on the bench. At its “Public Actions” page, the commission provides links to all disciplinary cases from 1982 to the present, by year, and provides another link to the most recent, or “open” complaints. Following are selected 2010 decisions by the Commission.
VIOLENT LANGUAGE: Judge Frank V. LaSalata, King County District Court was the subject of a stipulation, order and agreement of admonishment dated Sept. 24, 2010. According to the document, signed by the judge’s attorney Anne Bremner, after a young intern prosecutor interrupted LaSalata while appearing before him in his court, to correct a minor misstatement she had just made regarding a new driving offense by a defendant previously charged with DUI, LaSalata immediately asked her for an informal “sidebar” conference in the hallway. According to the stipulation and admonishment document, in an angry manner and while physically very close to the much smaller complainant, Judge LaSalata said he would “rip her head off” if she ever interrupted him again. LaSalata later said he believed he used the word “verbally” before “rip” – but agreed to refrain from similar verbiage in the future. The commission noted such behavior diminishes respect for the judiciary, and that this particular incident was widely discussed in the King County legal community.
MIXING BUSINESS WITH PRIVATE CONCERNS: In another stipulation, agreement and order of admonishment dated September 24, 2010 the commission and King County Superior Court Judge Michael Heavey, of West Seattle, agreed that he had violated the judicial code of conduct by using court personnel and letterhead to write to Italian legal authorities in defense of Amanda Knox of West Seattle, convicted or murder in a controversial Italian court proceeding. The code prohibits lending the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests of a judge or others, and requires avoidance of impropriety and behavior that would diminish public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. The stipulation agreement issued by the commission notes that after initial charges were made, Judge Heavey in a self-report to the commission admitted to errors in judgement, pledged not to repeat any of the actions cited, and wrote to Italian authorities on his own letterhead to correct the impression he had written earlier in an official capacity.
PERMANENTLY BENCHED: Another widely reported case recently reached its final disposition. On August 5, 2010 the Supreme Court of the State of Washington issued a finding confirming a recommendation by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that former Judge Michael A. Hecht of Pierce County be censured and disqualified from future judicial office. The Supreme Court’s action follows from a May 2010 commission finding that Hecht had been criminally convicted on a misdemeanor count of patronizing a prostitute and a felony harassment charge involving a deatth threat and that he therefore had violated requirements to uphold the integrity of the judiciary and avoid impropriety. The commission’s May 2010 finding also stated: “the limited stipulated record presented to the panel precluded reaching any findings regarding other allegations…that Respondent engaged in multiple other acts of exchanging money, food and legal services in exchange for sexual acts, that Respondent used racial slurs, and that he stole his campaign opponent’s yard signs.”
CONDUCT UNBECOMING: Judge John R. Henry of Garfield County District Court – who has also served as a court commissioner in Asotin and Columbia counties – was the subject of a stipulation, agreement and order of reprimand issued by the commission on May 14, 2010. The case stemmed from a conversation in Asotin County judges chambers in July 2008 between the judge and a female attorney who had tried cases before him regularly. The subject of camping arose and the attorney said she did not enjoy it. The judge replied, “Oh, if I got you naked in the lake and soaped down, you’d like it.” In another instance cited, the judge took another female attorney for a ride on his motorcycle, touched her inappropriately and during a stop at a remote rural location pressured her to kiss him. In connection with these incidents, the stipulation document states Judge Henry was found to have violated the judicial code of conduct by behaving a manner that could have been reasonably perceived as offensive and unwelcome, and by acting with a lack of propriety and courtesy.