Judges who crossed the line -- or erased it
Gail Diane Cox
The National Law Journal
You'd think they'd learn, what with all the shattered careers and
yuckfests with Jay Leno presiding.
For Law Day 2003, The National Law Journal offers its list of judges
behaving poorly — or perhaps we should say
They are cause for celebration, because they were sitting in judgment of
the rest of us on May 1, 2002, and this May 1, they weren't.
Each year, some are gone because they retired early while under
investigation, in hopes of salvaging something. For some, it worked.
The allegations against an Arkansas judge, Sam Whitfield, were sealed
when he agreed to retire effective Aug. 30, 2002 —
leaving behind only a notation that there were investigated complaints of
misconduct on and off the bench.
Other judges were ousted by their state judicial conduct commissions with
an embarrassing press release but their pensions intact. In a few
cases, the judges are sitting out suspensions until their supreme courts
decide what to do with them.
One judge who made this year's list of court buffoons has been off the
bench since June of last year as a healthful side effect of his being under
RONALD D. BODENHEIMER
Judge Ronald D. Bodenheimer had a dream. It revolved around a
scruffy brew-and-bait marina that he owned. Neighbors complained about
drug dealing on the premises.
On the opening day of fishing season, a 15-year-old was electrocuted
there because of a faulty conveyer belt. But the eyesore could be
turned around, Bodenheimer believed, with one major fishing contract.
And Bodenheimer, who sat on Louisiana's New Orleans District Court, thought
he could use the power of the bench to get it.
A millionaire restaurateur, Al Copeland, had a child custody case against
his ex-wife in Bodenheimer's court. Using go-betweens, the judge let
Copeland know he could have anything he wanted —
taking the 4-year-old away from his mother on Christmas morning was
specifically mentioned — in return for a healthy
contract to supply shrimp. In one phone conversation, the judge warned
Copeland's brother that he was planning a rant-and-rave performance for the
courtroom and Copeland should not take it personally, it was just necessary
to keep the wife from suspecting "the fix is in."
Copeland hasn't been charged in the FBI's courthouse corruption
investigation. Bodenheimer, a 50-year-old career prosecutor who won
election to the bench in 1999, initially claimed innocence
— until scraps of the FBI bugs of his phone conversations started
When another judge refused to quash the tapes, he pleaded guilty.
Bodenheimer has been off the bench, and under house arrest, since June 2002.
It turns out that even his attempts to discredit his critics backfired.
One of the charges in the indictment is that he planted three of the
painkilling pills Oxycontin in a neighbor's truck —
only to find out the neighbor was an FBI informant.
BRUCE VAN VOORHIS
Until Judge Bruce Van Voorhis came along with his Judge Dread routine,
California had never removed a judge for rotten demeanor alone.
But as the state's judicial performance commission observed, Van Voorhis
of Contra Costa County Superior Court took rudeness to new realms that
qualified as abuse of authority and embroilment.
One target was a prosecutor, three months out of law school, who was
nonplused by erratic evidentiary rulings that the judge forced down her
objecting throat. He later insisted it was a sort of tough-love
session, designed to show her the importance of anticipating the unexpected
even if one has a slam-dunk case.
Rookie female prosecutors had it the worst. One noted for the
commission that the young women were the most vulnerable because they felt
they had to show that they could "take it" without complaining. But
others were humiliated as well.
The judge berated a defense attorney, examining a witness in front of a
jury, with, "Now you need to ask him the question that you learned in law
school is a legitimate question." He told a deputy public defender who
was born in Ecuador that however "charming" his way of speaking, he should
"lose the accent."
Jurors wrote complaints after they passed a note to the judge asking for
a clarification and instead he did a number on them for a grammar error in
The judge said he is misunderstood. He also admits it's getting
worse, not better. In 1992, six years after Van Voorhis was elected,
the commission sanctioned him for being harsh with his staff, intimidating
with counsel and inflexible with jurors.
In 1994, there was another reproof. Last year he was
semi-sidelined, assigned to hear only small claims and fender-bender cases.
On Feb. 27, the judicial conduct commission took him off the bench
Van Voorhis' attorney said he'll ask the state Supreme Court to rule on
whether being a jerk — by itself
— is ground for a judge to be ousted.
The state's judicial conduct board concluded in mid-February that Gerald
Trudel, a judge in Michigan Circuit Court, Allen Park, should be removed
from office for abusing county workers, taking unearned vacations and faking
He's been suspended since July 2002, pending the Michigan Supreme Court
acting on the conduct board's recommendation.
The judge had a fondness for driving his staff into opposing camps with
arbitrary rewards and punishments, the board alleges. It says he
secretly used city money, without authorization, to rent a second courthouse
without running water or working toilets — and
exiled those who were out of favor to the gulag.
Meanwhile, he set out for palmier climes. The board reported that
he tried to take seven months vacation in three years, disguising much of it
as medical leave for depression, while taking trips to Newport Beach, Calif.
We may be seeing a trend here that helps explain judicial thought.
One of the allegations against Trudel is that he referred to himself as
California's Bruce Van Voorhis explained his gush of anger in the
courtroom as being comparable to the frustration Jesus felt when he saw the
money changers in the temple. And in Texas, Richard W.B. Davis
— a lawyer who almost made our cut — sent
notes about how critics' comments struck him as being like defecation on Mt.
RODNEY P. OWENS
Rodney P. Owens fought his judicial conduct commission just long enough
— from his July 2002 suspension until Jan. 6, 2003
— that it was irrefutable that he had been on the bench for a decade
and so would have a vested pension.
Then the district judge from Little Rock, Ark., quit.
The commission urged his ouster for tax avoidance. He had bought a
37-foot, 1989 Vogue IV, a trailer worth about $103,000, and then paid an
extra $1,000 to have it fraudulently registered in Oregon, which has no
sales or use tax on vehicles.
When he discovered the investigation was under way, Owens paid about
$10,000 in taxes, interest and penalties. Now his attorney is
appealing, alleging six major errors, e.g., that the trial judge did not
give the jury the option of convicting on the lesser offense of failing to
register a vehicle.
CHARLES E. LOWE JR.
When April 14 came, so did a reprimand from the judicial conduct
commission against Judge Charles E. Lowe, a Pike County, Ky., Circuit Court
judge, for having a sexual relationship with a litigant.
"The conduct of the judge shocks the conscience of the commission," said
the chairman, Stephen D. Wolnitzek, adding that Lowe could have been removed
from office if he hadn't already resigned.
The judge restricted his resignation to one sentence, and has not been
available to comment on the sworn declarations that Debbi Mullins gave the
commission. She and her husband had adopted a baby girl, and were
frightened when the birth mother tried to back out of the agreement.
Mullins said a cousin worked for Lowe and told him she would do anything to
keep the child.
"He took me up on it," wrote Mullins, adding that she became the judge's
"on the side" for five years, the length of time it took the adoption to
THOMAS B. WOODARD
The competition is always tough for judicial horndog of the year, but
Judge Thomas B. Woodard, 52, of the Pickens County, Ala., juvenile court,
wins the title going away.
And going away is just what he did, negotiating his retirement two days
before the state's conduct commission was opening hearings into the case it
had made against him for touching, hugging and kissing women and girls in
The judge had served a six-month suspension for the same thing eight
years earlier, and had been indefinitely suspended again as of August 2002.
In one alleged incident, he held a 10-year-old girl in his arms for 15
minutes while counseling her, concluding with a kiss. In another, he
questioned a crying teenager, insisting on knowing how many people she had
slept with. When she finally replied, he called her a "whore."
And then there was the troublesome case in which he didn't recuse himself
even though he was dating the defendant; he ruled for her in a child support
case and, in an assault case against her, sentenced her to probation.
Until the end, his attorney insisted Woodard's only problem was that he
was a "touchy-feely kind of guy."
FRANCIS X. GOLNIEWICZ JR.
Appointed to the bench in 1991 by the Illinois Supreme Court, Judge
Francis X. Golniewicz of the Cook County Circuit Court was the son of a
But in less than a year, complaints started about his bullying, profane
ways, like the time he lectured a black defendant: "When I'm talking to you,
boy, you look at me."
The stories finally made it to the judicial inquiry board, and Golniewicz
was removed from judicial duties as of June 2002 until his case is resolved.
According to the conduct board, he "engaged in rude, inappropriate,
undignified, prejudicial and biased behavior," toward defendants and
witnesses, including using profanity in open court.
What he said, his lawyer insisted, was "friggin'." And for the
judge, "boy" is not a racial epithet.
Stories about how Golniewicz derided jurors may pose his biggest hurdle
to getting back on the bench. In one case, according to the judicial
board complaint, the judge said he was not signing the certificates of
appreciation routinely given to jurors for their service.
Remarking that jurors didn't deserve it, Golniewicz purportedly tore up
the papers and threw them in the trash in view of the departing jurors
OK, the rules we set for each year's list of judicial shenanigans exclude
the routine ticket-fixers and those (re)arrested for drunken driving
— because there's usually a dozen of each, and they're pathetic in
But Broward County, Fla., Family Law Judge Joyce Julian's ballet with the
bottle qualifies her as anything but a garden-variety drinker. And,
voters decided last fall, it also disqualifies her from sitting in judgment
of others. It was the first time in a decade that an incumbent Florida
judge failed to win re-election.
The incident occurred at the state judges' annual conference, with 450
attendees, at the posh Amelia Island Plantation near Jacksonville, Fla.
Security reports describe the 44-year-old judge cutting quite a figure on
the first night: verbally abusing a valet, crashing a private party,
announcing she wanted to "pick up a cowboy" and drinking until she was
falling down on the lounge dance floor.
She was spotted at 3 a.m. lying on a floor in a hotel corridor, rising to
take off her pants and trying to hide behind an ice maker. That's when
the really bad stuff started.
By way of cover-up, the half-naked judge told a Nassau County, Fla.,
sheriff's deputy someone had spiked her drink and sexually assaulted her.
In a victim's report, she fingered a man in a long, dark, leather coat.
She recanted it, then refiled it.
After a two-week investigation, the authorities concluded that the story
was a lie. Her attorney, citing blackout problems, negotiated a stint
in rehab, and all charges were dropped.
JAMES I. AARON
When Fresno County, Calif., Superior Court Judge James I. Aaron presided
over drug court, he'd order defendants to approach the bench and smell their
hair to determine if they were playing by the rules.
It turned out, however, that the stench came from the other side of the
Last July, the state commission issued a public censure, which the judge
stipulated to as part of his agreement to step down within five days.
Besides deriding the drug-sniffing, the censure states that the judge
helped run a ponzi scheme out of his chambers.
A Fresno businessman named Kenneth Roper recruited the judge and gave him
a $20,000 finder's fee to bring in investors. The judge talked up the
get-rich potential of it, while neglecting to mention to potential suckers
that he hadn't put his own money in or that he got kick-backs for everyone
he signed up.
Fresno lawyer David Mudridge said he finally invested $2,500
— but not because he expected to make any money. Mudridge said
he'd go for a court appearance and the judge would take him into chambers to
discuss investments, so Mudridge finally agreed "to get him off my back."
Aaron told court staff that Roper and any investors had primo access.
If they phoned, they were put through to the judge even if he was on the
When the scheme collapsed, Aaron agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Roper is now doing time.
Aaron's attorney says the judge and Roper went to the same church, and
Aaron never thought the scheme was illegal. He adds that Aaron, 60,
was planning to retire anyway.
DANNY RAY WELLS
What is it about West Virginia judges putting the bite on people during
To celebrate Law Day 1998, The National Law Journal recounted how Judge
Joseph Troisi lost it — as well as his job
— when he came off the bench after a bail proceeding to bite a
defendant on the nose.
This year, Logan County Magistrate Danny Ray Wells was convicted of
shaking down those who came to his courtroom to try to help friends and
The way it worked — from January 2000 to last
summer — is that he would tell, say, the mother
of an arrestee that she must pay $300 in "special, nonrefundable bonds" to a
mysterious man who appeared to be a bondsman or the runner for a bondsman.
Then the judge would free the defendant on a personal recognizance bond,
which doesn't require any payment, and pocket the cash. The man, John
Nagy, a former court marshal, said that he and Wells would go into chambers
afterward and split the take down the middle.
The prosecution initially alleged that Wells, 51, accepted not only cash
but also sex. A woman testified that she believed the only way to free
her husband was to take Wells up on his offer to have intercourse with him
at night in the magistrate's lunch room.
Wells denied all the allegations, insisting that Nagy had run the bond
racket by himself. The jury concluded that the prosecution hadn't
proved the sex part, but convicted Wells of bribery and extortion.
The state supreme court suspended Wells without pay in October 2002.
Two weeks after his March 3 conviction, he resigned.