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Emily Welker, Published October 23 2013

Court reporter praises disciplinary panel for finding Judge Corwin sexually harassed her

BISMARCK – A court reporter who was the focus of a state Judicial Conduct Commission proceeding praised the disciplinary panel Wednesday for recommending the suspension of a Cass County judge accused of sexually harassing her.

The panel of the North Dakota Supreme Court recommended that East Central District Judge Wickham Corwin be removed from the bench for two months without pay and cover about $12,000 in court costs.

“I’m happy with the panel’s findings of sexual harassment, retaliation and hostile workplace – because that’s what it was,” said Lisa Plante, who worked as a court reporter for Corwin. “I hope the Supreme Court takes a zero-tolerance stance on this type of behavior from a judge and removes him. That’s my personal opinion.”

Corwin vowed, through his attorneys at Serkland Law Office in Fargo, to fight the sanction recommendations.

“Judge Corwin is disappointed by the decision of the hearing panel. He continues to believe that he should be judged based on what he said and did, not what someone else imagined,” a statement released by the judge reads.

“This matter was initially reviewed through the state court administrator and determined to be a misunderstanding which involved no deliberate misconduct on the part of Judge Corwin,” it states.

The statement also said Corwin intends to appeal the hearing panel’s decision in the hopes that the North Dakota Supreme Court will reject the decision.

In its recommendation, the Judicial Conduct Commission found that Corwin had repeatedly sexually harassed Plante, beginning in July 2010 when he proposed a sexual relationship and was turned down.

The panel’s findings lay out a pattern of incidents between Corwin and his court reporter in which Corwin repeatedly attempted to engage the court reporter in discussions about their relationship, often behind closed doors.

Plante said she had a standing arrangement with a co-worker to come to the judge’s office after a certain amount of time so she wouldn’t have to be alone with the judge. She also had a co-worker to walk out with at the end of the work day for the same reason.

In many cases, Corwin asked Plante to do something alone with him, frequently lunch or other personal errands. When Plante refused, Corwin told her, “Stop being so [expletive] difficult.”

Following a confrontation between Plante and the judge at an area supermarket, Corwin told the court reporter, “If this was still the law firm, I would have taken care of the problem a long time ago.”

Plante told the judge on five occasions that she did not want a personal relationship, often in strongly worded emails, the panel found.

“We are COWORKERS – start acting like it! You are making me hate this job and feel ill coming here because I don’t want to deal with you,” she wrote in an email.

The case came to light after Corwin gave Plante a negative job review, telling Court Administrator Rod Olson that she was reluctant to do typing for him and that she had sent him emails with an insubordinate tone.

Corwin’s comments led to an investigation by state Court Administrator Sally Holewa, which then led to a complaint being filed against Corwin with the Judicial Conduct Commission.

After hearings at which both Corwin and Plante testified, the panel concluded Corwin set upon a course of retaliation after continually being rebuffed by Plante. It included trying to have her reassigned, disciplined or terminated.

The pair no longer work on the same team at the Cass County Courthouse.

“[The court reporter] did not want to report Judge Corwin, and if anything, being involved in a public proceeding is probably her worst fear,” the panel’s recommendation stated. “Further, Judge Corwin’s conduct has subjected the judiciary to public ridicule which undermines the public’s confidence in the judiciary.”

Brent Edison, a lawyer for the disciplinary board who presented the case against Corwin at a hearing in June, said his office recommended a one-month suspension for Corwin.

Edison said he could not comment further because the case is still pending. Both sides have 20 days to appeal to the state Supreme Court on the basis of the panel’s findings, its conclusion or recommendations, he said.

In a similar case, Cass County District Court Judge Michael McGuire was found to have sexually harassed staff members. The state Supreme Court in 2004 suspended McGuire for two months.

Plante said that her previous reluctance to come forward in the sexual harassment case against Corwin was something she was rethinking Wednesday, in light of the panel’s findings.

“Although I didn’t bring this action, in hindsight, if coming forward would empower other women, then I wish I had,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541