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Archie Ingersoll, Published March 14 2014

ND Supreme Court reduces Corwin suspension to one month; justices agree Fargo judge sexually harassed court reporter

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Supreme Court announced Friday it has reduced the unpaid suspension of an East Central District Judge accused of sexually harassing a court reporter from two months to one month.

The timing of the suspension will allow Fargo-based Judge Wickham Corwin to serve his suspension at the end of his term in December, essentially hastening his retirement as a judge. Corwin had previously announced he will not seek re-election in November.

In the unanimous opinion issued Friday, the state’s highest court found there is evidence Corwin violated the state’s code of judicial conduct by engaging in “conduct that could reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment.”

In June, the Judicial Conduct Commission held a two-day disciplinary hearing in Fargo to look into allegations that Corwin kept trying to have a sexual relationship with court reporter Lisa Plante after she rejected his proposal for a sexual affair on July 15, 2010.

Brent Edison, disciplinary counsel for the commission, described 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 that he was referring to reassignment of duties, not termination.

“Even if we accept Judge Corwin’s claim that he was simply seeking to reestablish an ‘amicable working relationship,’ his attempts to do so after July 15, 2010 were at best naive,” the Supreme Court opinion states. “Most of Judge Corwin’s communications were requests for meetings with the court reporter to occur outside the workplace setting. This was abnormal for judges and their coworkers.

Corwin and Plante no longer work on the same team at the Cass County Courthouse.

The Judicial Conduct Commission ruled in October that Corwin had sexually harassed Plante and recommended that he serve a two-month, unpaid suspension and cover the costs of the disciplinary hearings against him.

Corwin appealed the commission’s recommendation to the state Supreme Court, arguing in a brief that the case was “the only significant black mark on a life of accomplishment that spans more than 63 years.” The brief also said the case ruined his plans for a second term in office and damaged his reputation.

In Friday’s decision, the state Supreme Court reduced Corwin’s suspension to one month without pay and ordered he be charged $11,958 for the costs of the disciplinary hearings.

Corwin was elected as a judge in 2008.

The justices said in Friday’s decision the timing of Corwin’s suspension aimed to minimize the impact on his pending court cases and on other judges in the district, the opinion stated.

Messages left for Corwin and his attorney were not returned Friday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734