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N.D. Supreme Court upholds suspension of judge Corwin for harassing court reporter

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Supreme Court has upheld disciplinary action against East Central District Judge Wickham Corwin for his conduct toward a Cass County court reporter.

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The high court found “clear and convincing evidence” that Corwin violated judicial canons that require a judge to discharge responsibilities without bias or prejudice and not to engage in conduct “that could reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment.”

The Judicial Conduct Commission recommended Corwin serve a two-month suspension without pay, but the Supreme Court reduced it to a one-month suspension without pay effective Dec. 1. Corwin also will be assessed $11,958.56 for the costs and expenses of the disciplinary proceedings.

After a two-day disciplinary hearing last June, the commission found that Corwin had repeatedly sexually harassed 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.

“More significant, Judge Corwin was made well aware of how the court reporter interpreted his attempts to reestablish their ‘relationship’ through her communications to him. Yet, Judge Corwin persisted in his unsuccessful efforts to meet the court reporter in nonwork settings. It was reasonable for the court reporter to interpret Judge Corwin's conduct as seeking much more than an ‘amicable working relationship.’ ”

The opinion stated that Corwin engaged in a pattern of misconduct during an 18-month period, “both inside and outside of the workplace.”

“Judge Corwin's conduct had a negative physical and mental impact on the court reporter. Judge Corwin continues to maintain that the situation was basically a misunderstanding. Judge Corwin's actions have tarnished the integrity of and respect for the judiciary,” the opinion states.

Corwin announced in December that he will not seek reelection when his current term expires Dec. 31, stating in a letter to the Cass County Bar Association, “I have enjoyed the job, but not the publicity.” Friday’s court opinion also noted that Corwin received counseling.

“In light of those facts and in order to minimize the impact of his suspension on the parties whose cases are pending in the East Central Judicial District, including the timely disposition of those cases, as well as the impact on the other judges of that District, we order the suspension effective December 1, 2014,” the opinion states.

The two-month suspension and loss of net pay recommended by the commission would have matched 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.

“Although Judge Corwin's conduct was disturbing, it was less pervasive in the court system and occurred over a shorter period of time than the conduct involved in McGuire,” the opinion issued Friday stated.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.