Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published January 03 2014
Corwin asks state Supreme Court to ease sanctions; judge accused of sexual harassment
After a two-day disciplinary hearing last June, the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission found that East Central District Judge Wickham Corwin had repeatedly sexually harassed court reporter Lisa Plante after she rejected his proposal for a sexual affair on July 15, 2010.
The panel recommended that Corwin be suspended for two months without net pay – meaning he would still receive retirement contributions and other benefits – and that he pay $11,958 for the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.
Brent Edison, disciplinary counsel for the commission, described on Friday a pattern of persistent contact by Corwin toward the court reporter, including closed-door meetings, lunch requests and “incessant” discussion about their relationship, all of which was interpreted by Plante “as not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
In one instance, Corwin told the woman that if he were still working at a private law firm, he would have “taken care of the problem by now,” which she interpreted to mean he would have fired her. Corwin told the hearing panel he was referring to reassignment of duties, not termination.
Corwin’s attorney, Ronald McLean, said the judge’s repeated attempts were merely an effort to re-establish a cordial working relationship.
“There is just no evidence of behavior sexual in nature after July 15,” he said.
If there was a violation by Corwin, it was that he was impatient, McLean said, drawing a quick response from Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle.
“It’s not being impatient with her,” VandeWalle said. “It’s insisting on talking about it when she doesn’t want to talk about it.”
VandeWalle repeatedly asked McLean why Corwin didn’t just back off.
“There comes a time when you have to get it. You have to understand. And apparently that was difficult for him to do,” VandeWalle said.
Corwin, who didn’t attend Friday’s hearing, is asking the high court to find that he didn’t violate canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct because there was no evidence that he touched or had sexually suggestive communications with Plante after July 15, 2010, and because he didn’t subject her to disparate and inappropriate treatment based on her sex.
He also argues that the panel should have allowed expert testimony about sexual harassment and that its recommended sanctions are too harsh.
The two-month suspension and loss of net pay matches the punishment given to Cass County Judge Michael McGuire, who was accused by seven former or current female courthouse employees of making sexist remarks and inappropriate touching. McGuire retired in 2004, just before the start of the suspension.
Edison said that while McGuire’s case involved more women, Corwin’s conduct was focused on one person and involved retaliation, and therefore warrants an equivalent sanction. He said McGuire’s case should have been “a bright line” of warning that such conduct toward subordinates wouldn’t be tolerated, yet it happened again.
The Supreme Court took the case under advisement and will issue its ruling at a later date.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at email@example.com.