SJC weighs sanctions in Judge Estes case

  • THOMAS ESTES

  • Judge Thomas Estes listens as his attorney addresses the court on Tuesday, April 24, 2018, in Boston. Estes admits he had a sexual relationship with Tammy Cagle, who worked in the special drug court where he sat, that included sexual encounters in his courthouse chambers. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via AP) Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

  • Tammy Cagle stands with her attorney, as she speaks to the media in the case of Judge Thomas Estes in Boston on Tuesday. Estes admits he had a sexual relationship with Cagle, who worked in the special drug court where he sat, that included sexual encounters in his courthouse chambers. BOSTON Globe VIA AP

@ecutts_HG
Published: 4/24/2018 10:23:30 AM

BOSTON — Will the public be able to trust the administration of justice if Judge Thomas H. Estes is allowed to keep his judgeship? What is the appropriate punishment for the judge who admitted to having sexual relations inside his courthouse lobby with a colleague?

Those were the questions at hand Tuesday morning as attorneys argued before six members (one attending the hearing via a livestream) of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in Boston. Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants recused himself from the case.

Estes, 50, who served as the presiding judge in Eastern Hampshire District Court, has admitted he engaged in a sexual relationship with a licensed clinical social worker who was hired to help launch a specialty court program in Pittsfield.

The social worker, Tammy Cagle, was removed from her position at Behavioral Health Network Inc. last spring. But Estes denies allegations Cagle made in a federal lawsuit, including that he coerced her into performing oral sex on him and played a role in getting her removed from the drug court when she tried to end the relationship.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct recommended a public censure and indefinite unpaid suspension to allow the executive and legislative branches time to consider whether Estes should keep his judicial office. Estes and his attorney, David Hoose, are seeking a four-month unpaid suspension.

Estes, of Northampton, who’s married and has two teenage boys, attended Tuesday’s hearing but left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. The court did not immediately decide his punishment.

For an hour, the justices asked questions of attorney Howard V. Neff III, executive director of the commission, and Hoose, as the two presented their cases.

Neff told the justices that the case was without factual precedent and that because in Massachusetts judges are not subject to reappointment or election, the court had a greater duty to ensure that judicial misconduct is fully and adequately addressed.

When asked by Justice Scott L. Kafker if the repeated nature of the incidents was important, Neff said the length of the affair went toward the “willful nature of Judge Estes’ conduct.”

“Judge Estes, by his own admission, the day after his first sexual encounter with Ms. Cagle in November of 2016, was wracked with guilt, apparently appreciating that what he had just done was wrong,” Neff said. “But instead of stopping, he continued to have an ongoing sexual relationship with her for another eight months.”

The commission found no direct evidence that Estes had displayed favoritism. Neff argued that previous case law had ruled that just the appearance of impropriety was the key concern and that no previous amount of good behavior could negate the impact on the public’s opinion.

“What I would respectfully suggest is that this case really boils down to a simple question,” Neff said. “In light of the seriousness and nature of Judge Estes’ misconduct, conduct he has admitted to ... does this court believe that he can ever command the moral authority and respect necessary to be a judge in Massachusetts or has he through his conduct rendered himself permanently unable to do so?”

Neff contended that Estes has lost the moral authority to be a judge and urged the justices to adopt the commission’s recommendation.

Hoose argued that Estes engaged in conduct worthy of sanction but it was not severe enough to terminate his career. He also argued that the relationship with Cagle had no effect on Estes’ decision making in the specialty drug court where the two worked, and characterized Cagle’s claims of sexual harassment as baseless and without merit.

‘Actual impropriety’

Hoose asked the court to consider whether there was an “actual impropriety” in terms of the relationship affecting Estes’ decision making, as opposed to the appearance of impropriety.

“This became known to the world and now we have an appearance issue and an abuse of power issue that even if it didn’t directly impact individual decisions, places the integrity of the process itself at issue, doesn’t it?” Justice Scott L. Kafker asked.

“Justice Estes has never denied that. I want to be clear on that,” Hoose said. “We do understand the appearance of impropriety.”

Hoose cited cases in Michigan and Washington that he said highlighted that one of the factors a court should consider in imposing sanction is whether there was actual impropriety as opposed to the appearance of impropriety.

Citing interviews of court employees conducted by Neff, Hoose said not one person interviewed could recall a single incident where it appeared Estes was favoring Cagle’s opinion.

Asked by Justice Kimberly S. Budd how Judge Estes could ever command moral respect or authority in the courtroom again, Hoose said there have been many sinners in the workplace generally.

“He is not the first person to have sexual relationship with a co-worker,” Hoose said. “He is not the first judge, male or female, to have sexual relationship with a co-worker.”

Hoose said past instances where judges have been removed from the bench permanently were few and far between. If the SJC indefinitely suspends Estes and refers the matter to lawmakers and the governor, it will be only the fourth time it has ever done so, according to Hoose.

Hoose concluded by saying that Estes was not only a good judge, but a superlative judge, an exemplary judge who has sinned but not sinned so severely as to cost him his career.

If the court refers the case to the legislative branch, lawmakers could either impeach Estes or issue a “bill of address” calling for his removal. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who supports Estes’ removal, and the Governor’s Council would both have to sign off on a bill of address to strip Estes from the bench. The last time a Massachusetts judge was removed through a bill of address was Judge Jerome Troy of the Dorchester District Court in 1973.

Leonard Kesten, an attorney for Cagle, said Estes has lost his right to be a judge. Cagle, who also attended the hearing, declined to speak to reporters.

Estes “was absolutely in charge of her job and in control of her future and used that power to take advantage of a vulnerable employee. And that you can’t do.” Kesten said. “We’re certainly at a time in our country when people have recognized that. And it’s time that women don’t have to put up with this.”

This story contains reporting from the Associated Press.Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.


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