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Corwin asks Supreme Court to ease sanctions

BISMARCK — The attorney for a judge facing a two-month suspension and loss of pay for allegedly sexually harassing a Cass County court reporter asked the North Dakota Supreme Court on Friday to reduce the punishment to an admonishment, saying, “He has suffered enough.”

After a two-day disciplinary hearing last June, the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission found that East Central District Judge Wickham Corwin had repeatedly sexually harassed court reporter Lisa Plante after she rejected his proposal for a sexual affair on July 15, 2010.

The panel recommended that Corwin be suspended for two months without net pay — meaning he would still receive retirement contributions and other benefits — and that he pay $11,958 for the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

Brent Edison, disciplinary counsel for the commission, described on Friday 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.

Corwin’s attorney, Ronald McLean, said the judge’s repeated attempts were merely an effort to re-establish a cordial working relationship.

“There is just no evidence of behavior sexual in nature after July 15,” he said.

If there was a violation by Corwin, it was that he was impatient, McLean said, drawing a quick response from Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle.

“It’s not being impatient with her,” VandeWalle said. “It’s insisting on talking about it when she doesn’t want to talk about it.”

VandeWalle repeatedly asked McLean why Corwin didn’t just back off.

“There comes a time when you have to get it. You have to understand. And apparently that was difficult for him to do,” VandeWalle said.

Corwin, who didn’t attend Friday’s hearing, is asking the high court to find that he didn’t violate canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct because there was no evidence that he touched or had sexually suggestive communications with Plante after July 15, 2010, and because he didn’t subject her to disparate and inappropriate treatment based on her sex.

He also argues that the panel should have allowed expert testimony about sexual harassment and that its recommended sanctions are too harsh.

The two-month suspension and loss of net pay matches 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.

Edison said that while McGuire’s case involved more women, Corwin’s conduct was focused on one person and involved retaliation, and therefore warrants an equivalent sanction. He said McGuire’s case should have been “a bright line” of warning that such conduct toward subordinates wouldn’t be tolerated, yet it happened again.

“There has been damage done … to the public perception of the integrity of the judiciary,” he said.

McLean noted that the East Central District’s presiding judge and trial court administrator and State Court Administrator Sally Holewa all reviewed the matter and decided to take no action, other than to reassign Corwin and pair him with another judge.

He asked justices to accept an admonishment agreement with Corwin.

“He has publicly been humiliated. He has suffered enough,” he said.

The Supreme Court took the case under advisement and will issue its ruling at a later date.

Mike Nowatzki

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