Judicial touching

Recently, 2 judges were sanctioned for touching people in the courthouse.

The West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission unequivocally held:  “Unwanted touching is harassment.  Therefore, a judge should never intentionally touch someone without first asking permission.”  The Commission explained:

A common phrase used by almost everyone is “don’t invade my personal space!”  What does it mean and should society be cognizant of the phrase when dealing with other people?  The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “personal space” as “the distance from another person at which one feels comfortable when talking to or being next to that other person.”  It’s the physical distance between two people in a social, family or work environment.  As the author Robert Sommer said, “Personal space refers to an area with invisible boundaries surrounding a person’s body into which intruders may not come.”

The study of personal space is called proxemics.  There are four distinct personal space zones:  intimate (0-2 feet); personal (2-4 ft.); social (4-12 ft.) and public (more than 12 ft).  Deference for a person’s space is a sign of respect for the person.  No one should ever invade someone’s personal space in a work setting without permission.  Consequently, no one should intentionally touch someone in a work setting without permission or even in jest.  As noted by Anthropologist Jane Goodall once said, “You have to realize that touching is a real violation of personal space.”

Thus, based on an agreement that included the magistrate’s resignation, the Commission publicly admonished a now-former magistrate for coming up behind a court employee at work and placing his hands on her hips.  In the Matter of Cole, Public admonishment (West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission April 29, 2021).  The touching was unwelcome and made the employee uncomfortable, but she did not say anything to the magistrate because of his position.  The employee did report the incident to her immediate supervisor, who contacted the chief magistrate, who reported it to the administrative office, which investigated and filed the complaint.

The magistrate said that he had no memory of the incident although he did not deny that it happened, acknowledging that he had always found the employee truthful and had no reason to believe that she made up the incident.

The magistrate admitted that, during a birthday celebration at the courthouse in 2017, he had swatted the same employee on her rear end approximately 9 times.  The magistrate said he stopped when the employee asked him to and that everyone in the room had laughed in a good-natured way.  The employee had been embarrassed but said nothing because of the judge’s status.

The Commission found:

Respondent considers himself a jokester.  Respondent said he often liked to sneak up behind the same employee and make a loud noise or touch her back in an effort to startle her.  Respondent said the employee would jump and they would both laugh.  Respondent acknowledged engaging in such activity with other employees.  Under repeated questioning, Respondent refused to admit that his actions were improper.  Instead, he claimed that he was just being spontaneous, that his actions were intended to be humorous and that he was trying to have some fun. . . .  Respondent declined to acknowledge that any unwelcome touch is an unwarranted touch or that an uneven balance of power would cause an employee to refrain from complaining about an unwanted touch. 

The magistrate agreed to stop spanking employees but “saw no need to stop touching people in an effort to scare them . . . .”

The Commission concluded that the magistrate’s touching of the employee “clearly constituted harassment . . . .  There is no place in the judiciary for a judge who has no respect for boundaries.  By his actions, Respondent cast shame on the whole judiciary and no longer deserves the title of judge.”

* * *

A Texas judge was admonished for approaching a legal assistant in his courtroom, touching her on the arm or shoulder, and rebuking her for sitting in a section of the courtroom reserved for attorneys.  In re Wilson (Texas Special Court of Review May 4, 2021).

The judge took office on January 1, 2019.  On January 29, Sarai Garza, a legal assistant for an attorney, was seated on the first bench in the judge’s courtroom, where, she testified, she had always sat with attorneys, interpreters, and other legal assistants in her 11 years as a legal assistant.

On that day, the judge apparently mistook Garza for the interpreter, saying, “Lady interpreter, are you ready?”  Noting that he was looking at her, Garza introduced herself and said that she was not the interpreter but that she would be “more than glad to help.”  Garza said that “everyone in the courtroom started laughing.”

Blasa Lopez, the interpreter, then entered the courtroom.  The judge left the bench, walked toward Lopez, and grabbed her arm.  Garza walked toward them to clear up the confusion about who the interpreter was.  Then, Garza testified, the judge grabbed and “jiggl[ed]” her right arm and told her in an “angry” and “very upset” voice that she could not sit where she had been sitting.  Garza said that his touch was painful, that she had not expected him to grab her arm in that manner, and that she was speechless.  Garza left the courtroom crying.

Lopez and an attorney who had been in the courtroom testified that they saw the judge grab Garza by the shoulder or arm.  An attorney called by the judge as a witness testified that the judge “came off the bench” in a packed courtroom of “probably 300 people,” “touched [Garza] on the elbow like [he was] trying to get somebody’s attention,” and told her that she could not be on that side of the courtroom. 

According to Garza, the judge grabbed her arm so hard that it was bruised.  Approximately 2 days later, Garza had a medical examination that indicated she presented with “[r]ight biceps and triceps, mild swelling with tenderness.” 

Lopez texted her supervisor to report the incident; the presiding judge filed the complaint with the Commission.  The incident generated a great deal of media attention.  Police investigated, but a grand jury declined to indict the judge.

The judge denied touching or grabbing Garza, or at most admitted to lightly touching her elbow or shoulder.  When asked if it was ever appropriate for a judge to touch a person in open court without their consent, the judge replied, “When a judge gently touches someone . . . it is not sexual harassment, it is not objectionable.”

The Texas Special Court of Review concluded that, “although Judge Wilson claims to not remember touching Garza, every other witness who was present . . . testified that Judge Wilson touched Garza in some way.”  The Court stated that it did not need to resolve whether the judge “forcefully touched or grabbed Garza because it is uncontested that the touching was without Garza’s permission.”  The Court also concluded that the judge’s conduct was willful because he had intended to touch Garza without her consent and to publicly admonish her in his crowded courtroom.  The Court found that the judge had failed “to treat Garza with patience, dignity, and courtesy” as required by the code of judicial conduct.

In mitigation, the Court noted that the judge had been in office for less than 30 days at the time of the incident and that the record revealed no previous or subsequent complaints against him.  However, in aggravation, it emphasized:

The misconduct took place in a public courtroom setting while Judge Wilson was robed and acting in his official capacity as a sitting judge.  The preponderance of the evidence shows that Judge Wilson’s behavior showed no regard or respect for Garza and caused her to be publicly embarrassed. . . .  Judge Wilson has largely failed to acknowledge that the charged misconduct against Garza occurred and has thus failed to take responsibility for his actions.

The Court rejected the judge’s argument “that it was ‘not objectionable’ ‘[w]hen a judge gently touches someone.’” 

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct had also ordered the judge to complete 2 hours of instruction about sexual harassment with a mentor; the Court modified that requirement to 2 hours of instruction about decorum.

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