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‘Serious’ Misconduct Prompts House Look at Judicial Reforms (2)

Feb. 6, 2020, 5:04 PMUpdated: Feb. 6, 2020, 9:13 PM

A reprimand of a federal judge in Kansas found to have made sexually suggestive comments to female court employees calls into question the adequacy of recent workplace misconduct reforms for the judiciary, the House Judiciary Committee said.

The committee is scrutinizing reforms put in place last year after the judicial council of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit sanctioned U.S. District Judge Carlos Murguia for what it found were “multiple acts of serious judicial misconduct,” according to a letter from the panel to senior federal judicial officials on Thursday.

A hearing by the Judiciary subcommittee on courts will be held Feb. 13 to evaluate the protections in place against judicial misconduct, the committee said, adding that the proceeding also will build a record for possible legislation.

The Democratic-led committee sent its bipartisan letter to Tenth Circuit Chief Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich, Judicial Conference of the United States Secretary James C. Duff, and Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas Julie A. Robinson. The Judicial Conference is the policy making body for the federal courts.

The Denver-based Tenth Circuit’s Judicial Council in September issued the public reprimand, the most severe sanction available, to Murguia after finding that he had sexually harassed judiciary employees, engaged in an extramarital sexual relationship with a convicted felon, and was habitually late for court engagements.

Murguia, who sits in Kansas City, was found to have given preferential treatment and unwanted attention to female court employees in the forms of inappropriate text messages and “excessive, non-work-related contact, much of which occurred after work hours and often late at night,” the council said.

It noted that Murguia admitted to the misconduct, but was “less than candid” about the extent of it. He was appointed to the bench by Bill Clinton.

This is “very troubling workplace behavior,” the Judiciary Committee’s letter said, and questioned why the judicial council failed to stop the “longstanding” harassment of its employees.

Federal courts are revisiting their workplace conduct rules after allegations of misconduct against Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski trained the #MeToo movement spotlight on the judiciary in 2017.

Fifteen women, including some former law clerks, accused Kozinski of groping them, showing them pornography, or making off-color comments. Kozinski said it was never his intent to make his clerks feel uncomfortable, and apologized for doing so.

The controversy forced him into retirement, and led Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to form a national working group to address the issue.

A plan adopted by the Judicial Conference established protocols for federal judges to report misconduct and revised procedures for employees to do the same. The plan has served as a model for other jurisdictions, including the Ninth, Seventh and D.C. circuit courts of appeals.

The Judiciary Committee’s letter said its focus was “forward-looking” since the Murguia matter was still before the Judicial Conference. It posed nine questions for the council to answer by Feb. 20. These include:

  • What support has been provided to court employees and those harassed by Murguia;
  • Whether those who were harassed are still working for him;
  • Does it intend to expose the extent of the misconduct and are there policies in place that will allow for such disclosure to prevent future misconduct; and
  • Why didn’t any individual file a complaint against Murguia and what systems are in place to report misconduct?

The letter reminded the council that “secrecy enables workplace misconduct” and “partial transparency” isn’t enough.

A spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which oversees the workings of the judiciary, said the Tenth Circuit’s decision isn’t the final step in the process under the rules for judicial conduct proceedings.

(Added comment from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in last paragraph. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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