Massachusetts’ highest court will decide the fate of a judge who admitted to having an affair with a clinical social worker that included sexual encounters at the courthouse.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct is asking for Judge Thomas Estes to be suspended indefinitely without pay to give lawmakers time to decide whether to remove him from the bench for his relationship with Tammy Cagle, who worked in the special drug court where Estes sat before she was reassigned last year.
If the Supreme Judicial Court agrees, it will be the first time in three decades it has taken such action against a judge for misconduct. The case comes amid the #MeToo movement that sparked a national reckoning over sexual misconduct in the workplace.
“This case couldn’t come at a worse time for Judge Estes,” said Martin Healy, chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
The Supreme Judicial Court will consider Estes’ case Tuesday.
Cagle has accused Estes, who’s married and has two teenage sons, of pressuring her into performing oral sex on him in his chambers and her home. Then after she tried to end the relationship, she asserts he treated her coldly and pushed her out of the drug court.
Estes is fighting for his job and urging the Supreme Judicial Court for a four-month suspension. He denies ever harassing Cagle or causing her to be removed from her job. He says that Cagle initiated their first encounter and he was “wracked with guilt,” but that Cagle pressed to continue their relationship.
“I hardly have the words to express the shame and sorrow that I feel,” Estes, who was first justice of the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, said in a statement before the Commission on Judicial Conduct. “I’ve brought disrepute to the bench that I am so proud to be a part of.”
The decision to oust Estes from the bench would be up to state lawmakers, who could either impeach him 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. Five years later, the high court sanctioned Robert Bonin, chief justice of the Superior Court, for attending a lecture that served as a fundraiser for a group of defendants, but Bonin resigned before lawmakers could kick him out of office.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct found that Estes used his judicial email account to arrange some of his sexual encounters with Cagle and strategize on how best to communicate in order to hide the affair from his family.
Estes was confined to administrative duties last year before news of the affair became public, prompting speculation that it was related to a sentence he handed out in a sexual assault case that sparked outrage.
A petition called for his removal in 2016 when he sentenced a former high school athlete to probation after the athlete pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two classmates. The case drew parallels to that of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who got just six months in jail for a sexual assault conviction.
Judge Estes’ lawyer David Hoose, who didn’t respond to phone messages from The Associated Press, told the court that the humiliation Estes has experienced in the exposure of the affair calls for a more lenient punishment. His attorney argues the affair had no impact on Estes’ judicial duties, saying Estes’ evaluations are “nothing short of superlative.”
“Judge Estes has taken a terrible beating in the press and on social media, most of it from people who know neither the law nor the facts of his case,” Hoose said in court documents. “But these pundits and cranks do not determine the appropriate sanction — this court does.”
But Healy, of the Bar Association, said he doesn’t see how Estes keeps his job based on past cases of judicial misconduct.
“I can’t think of another position in society that has more power and the potential for abuse of that power than someone who is sworn in for as a judge for life,” Healy said.