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Emily Welker, Published March 20 2013

Formal harassment complaint filed against Cass County judge

FARGO – A formal complaint has been filed with the North Dakota Judicial Conduct Commission against Cass County District Judge Wickham Corwin in the wake of allegations he sexually harassed and created a hostile work environment for a court reporter working under him at the time.

An official with the commission confirmed Wednesday that the charges were filed Feb. 5 by the disciplinary counsel for the Judicial Conduct Commission.

The complaint states Corwin told the woman he wanted a personal relationship with her, and the pair kissed, after which the woman expressed reservations and told Corwin she did not want to be involved with him.

Corwin continued to initiate conversations about their relationship and to initiate private meetings with the court reporter, the charges state, despite her objections that she did not want a friendship with him.

Corwin also suggested to the woman that she could transfer to another team, and that if the events happened at a private law firm, he would have “taken care of the problem by now,” the charges state.

The complaint states Corwin subsequently told the court administrator that the woman was reluctant to accept all the assignments he’d given her, and that she had sent him insubordinate emails. The complaints states Corwin and another judge had day-to-day control over her work, and that her pay increase was contingent in part on his performance review.

The State Court Administrator’s Office investigated the court reporter’s initial allegations and submitted its findings in a report last March.

The report found that Corwin had not intended to threaten the woman or create an uncomfortable work environment, but his actions had that effect.

The Forum is not identifying the court reporter because she didn’t bring forth the allegations. They were uncovered during an investigation into her job performance, prompted by Corwin’s complaints in a performance review.

“I made mistakes, but I certainly didn’t do any of the serious misconduct alleged,” Corwin said Wednesday. “The fundamentals haven’t changed a bit. I thought it was behind us.”

Corwin’s formal response to the complaint, which he provided to The Forum, denies the allegations, and states that the court reporter misconstrued his comments to her, and that his conversations after she turned him down were meant to maintain a good working relationship, not to pursue a personal one.

In his response, Corwin also denies he was her supervisor, or that he had any idea that his comments on her performance would have any implications for her job.

In a written statement, Corwin said, “At no time did I desire or pursue any form of intimate relationship” with the court reporter.

Brent Edison, disciplinary counsel for the Judicial Conduct Commission, said Wednesday that he has not seen Corwin’s response to the complaint.

When Corwin’s response is filed, the chairman of the Judicial Conduct Commission will set a hearing date, Edison said.

A hearing panel made up of two members of the public, a judge and an attorney will hear the case, in which both sides will present evidence.

Edison said the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the commission‘s case with “clear and convincing evidence.”

The panel can then forward a recommendation to the state Supreme Court about whether Corwin should be sanctioned. Sanctions could include censure, limiting his duties, suspension, removal or retirement, said Edison.

After that, either side would have 20 days to appeal the panel’s decision to the state Supreme Court. The court could accept, reject or modify in whole or in part the recommendation of the hearing panel.

Edison would not say who brought the case forward for formal complaint against Corwin, nor whether the disciplinary board had taken up a separate investigation from the one conducted last year by the State Court Administrator’s Office.

He said any proceedings of the Judicial Conduct Commission up to the point of formal complaint being filed are confidential.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541