While many conservatives want Congress to hold activist judges accountable, the House Judiciary Committee hasn’t investigated a referral of a potential impeachment case involving a Clinton-appointed federal judge in Connecticut who engaged in what appeared to be a personal crusade to stop the execution of a serial killer.
Connecticut legislators sent a letter February 1 to the House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner asking the committee to investigate U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny’s efforts to save Michael Ross, a man who killed eight women in the 1980s, raping most of them. The state sentenced Ross to death in 1984. "By failing to respect and comply with the law," the letter stated, "and by failing to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, Judge Chatigny may have violated the code of conduct of United States’ judges." "This is a clear case of judicial activism and abuse of the judiciary which is why we thought Congress might be interested," said Connecticut House Minority Leader Robert Ward, a Republican.
Last year Ross decided to drop all appeals and be executed. But the state’s public defender office argued he wasn’t competent to make that decision, despite numerous competency evaluations that showed otherwise. Ross fired his public defenders and hired a private attorney, T.R. Paulding, who had the unusual role of defending his client’s right to be executed. After failing in state courts, public defenders brought their case to U.S. District Court, with Chatigny presiding. Chatigny sided with the public defender’s argument from the that Ross had "death row syndrome," which means the conditions on death row are so unpleasant it caused depression and made him want to die, thus he wasn’t capable of making a life or death decision on his own.
The case moved quickly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned Chatigny’s decision and ruled in favor of executing Ross on January 29, just hours before it was scheduled. Before the high court even ruled, Chatigny took matters into his own hands. During a conference call with Paulding, Chatigny said Ross "never should have been convicted. Or if convicted, he never should have been sentenced to death," according to court transcripts.
In the call, the judge referenced an affidavit filed by former inmate Ramon Lopez and a former prison official who said Ross wanted to die to escape death row. "You better be prepared to deal with me if in the wake of this an investigation is conducted and it turns out that what Lopez says and what this former program director says is true, because I’ll have your law license," Chatigny told Paulding. After the call, Paulding asked to postpone the execution. The state had to comply, just as it would have if Ross had asked for an appeal. It seemed that a federal judge used personal threats to push his own agenda and disregard even the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. "This goes against anything someone sitting on the court should do," said Connecticut Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca in February after he and other Republicans drafted a letter to the U.S. House committee. "He should be removed." Last week DeLuca said he hasn’t heard back from the House Judiciary Committee.
A spokesman for the committee, Terry Shawn, said it was dealing with numerous other issues such as the Patriot Act, and didn’t know when or if the members would consider the matter. "There has been no committee action scheduled at this time on the matter," Shawn said. Seven assistant states attorney filed grievances with the federal court system protesting Chatigny’s actions. "We would like for the committee to investigate, but we realize it’s their decision," said Ward. "As elected officials, it was proper for us to file a complaint with Congress. We leave the grievances for the lawyers to file through the judiciary."
A staff member with the Connecticut House Republicans, who has been in contact with Congressional committee’s lawyers, was told that the committee was waiting to see how the matter played out. After a six-day competency hearing, a state Superior Court judge in New London ruled on April 22 that Ross is competent to forgo his appeals on April 22, paving the way for the rescheduled May 11 execution date. While not commenting on this specific case, Cindy Gray, the director of the center for judicial ethics with the American Judicatory Society, a professional association for judges, said Chatigny’s conduct was unusual. "Judges have a general obligation to behave in a dignified, respectful and courteous way to lawyers and others in court," Gray said. "This is in the code of conduct for U.S. judges."
A former defense attorney, Chatigny, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and has made a string of odd rulings. He ruled the Connecticut sex-offender registry to be unconstitutional and that Megan’s Law violates due-process rights, a decision later overturned. He also sentenced a man trading child pornography online to six months in prison when guidelines called for a sentence of 15 to 21 months. "Judge Chatigny’s conduct has raised eyebrows around the country as to how he has carried out his own political view," said Richard Wintory, vice president of the National District Attorney’s Association, and an Arizona prosecutor. "He did not want to enforce the law, he wanted to enforce what he thought the law should be."
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