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Dave Olson, Published June 25 2013

Judge calls harassment claim a ‘colossal misunderstanding’

FARGO – East Central Judicial District Court Judge Wickham Corwin told a disciplinary panel Tuesday that from his perspective, a court reporter’s claims of sexual harassment grew out of a “colossal misunderstanding” that magnified over time.

Corwin told a hearing panel for the North Dakota Judicial Conduct Commission that he was aware the court reporter was unhappy over something, but he could never get her to explain what it was.

The court reporter, whom The Forum is not identifying because she did not bring forth the allegations, testified before the panel Monday that Corwin proposed a sexual relationship in July 2010 and continued to pester her about the idea after she made it clear she wasn’t interested.

Corwin said Monday that he and the court reporter had become overly familiar, but he denied he suggested or pursued an affair.

The judge said he made a mistake when he invited the court reporter to his home after the two had drinks after work and went on a bike ride together, but he said although he embraced her at the end of the evening and kissed her, he later told her he was not looking for anything more.

Corwin said he believed a series of “fundamental misunderstandings” were at the center of the issue, and he said his repeated attempts to talk with the court reporter about trying to repair a deteriorating working relationship were apparently misinterpreted.

“To this day, I’m not sure I understand what the issue was, in her mind,” he said.

The court reporter testified Monday that she read Corwin’s overtures as unambiguous follow-ups to the evening of the bike ride and that “he was not giving up” on the possibility of an affair.

While denying he sought an affair, Corwin told the panel he said things to the court reporter he should not have.

According to his own testimony, some of the statements involved vulgarities. In one instance, he told the woman that if a similar conflict had arisen when he worked at a private firm, he would have already taken care of it.

Corwin told the panel Tuesday that he was talking about reassignment of duties, not termination.

The panel adjourned Tuesday. After a transcript of the hearing is completed, lawyers for both sides will have seven weeks to present closing arguments to the disciplinary panel.

The panel will then have about 60 days to make a decision.

If the panel decides there should be sanctions, its recommendation will be forwarded to the state Supreme Court, which makes the final decision.

Sanctions could range from censure, or limiting of duties, to suspension or removal, according to Brent Edison, disciplinary counsel for the Judicial Conduct Commission.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555