A Massachusetts judge who engaged in sexual acts with a social worker in his chambers has damaged the public's faith in the judicial system and can no longer command the respect necessary to remain on the bench, the head of the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct said Tuesday.
Howard V. Neff III, executive director of the commission, told the Supreme Judicial Court that an indefinite suspension that would allow lawmakers to decide whether to remove Judge Thomas Estes from the bench is the only proper punishment for behavior Neff called "egregious."
"Unless this court sets a precedent that makes it absolutely clear that this type of conduct will not be tolerated ... there is little hope that public trust in the administration of public justice in Massachusetts will be restored," Neff said.
Estes admits he had a sexual relationship with Tammy Cagle, who worked in the special drug court where he sat. But Estes denies allegations Cagle made in a federal lawsuit, including that he coerced her into performing oral sex on him and played a role in getting her removed from the drug court when she tried to end the relationship.
Estes, who's married and has two teenage boys, attended Tuesday's hearing but left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. The court did not immediately decide Estes' punishment. He is asking for a four-month suspension.
Estes' lawyer, David Hoose, said that there's no indication the relationship ever caused Estes to favor Cagle or affect his decisions on the bench. Hoose said many judges across the country have had inappropriate sexual relationships, but few have lost their jobs for it.
"He is an exemplary judge who has sinned but has not sinned so severely that it should cost him his career," Hoose said.
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But Justice Scott Kafker questioned how the court could restore Estes to his position, saying judges are held to the highest standards.
"Whenever a person in charge of the organization is having a sexual relationship with someone that reports to them that creates all kinds of problems, right?" Kafker asked.
If the Supreme Judicial Court indefinitely suspends Estes and refers the matter to lawmakers and the governor, it will be only the fourth time it has ever done so, Hoose said.
Lawmakers could then either impeach Estes or issue a "bill of address" calling for his removal. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who supports Estes' removal, and the Governor's Council would both have to sign off on a bill of address to strip Estes from the bench.
The last time a Massachusetts judge was removed through a bill of address was Judge Jerome Troy of the Dorchester District Court in 1973.
Leonard Kesten, an attorney for Cagle, said Estes has lost his right to be a judge. Cagle, who also attended the hearing, declined to speak to reporters.
Estes "was absolutely in charge of her job and in control of her future and used that power to take advantage of a vulnerable employee. And that you can't do." Kesten said. "We're certainly at a time in our country when people have recognized that. And it's time that women don't have to put up with this."