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SJC reassigns Barnstable clerk magistrate

A clerk magistrate in Barnstable District Court facing charges of unprofessional conduct, including terrorizing litigants, attorneys, and staff in abusive outbursts, was reassigned yesterday by the state’s highest court, pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing.

The Supreme Judicial Court ordered that clerk magistrate Robert E. Powers be moved out of Barnstable, effective Tuesday, following charges filed last month by the Committee on Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Courts, alleging that Powers regularly demonstrated tyrannical demeanor in the courthouse.

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“Mr. Powers’ unpredictable, disrespectful, and sometimes aggressive conduct as clerk magistrate towards judges, staff, attorneys, litigants, and other persons providing services at the District Court, has frightened, embarrassed, and depleted the morale of those working in and doing business with the Barnstable District Court,’’ the committee contends in court papers. “Mr. Powers has created the perception in the community that the Barnstable District Court is not a place to go to be treated fairly and to receive orderly administration of justice.’’

In May 2008, the father of a 17-year-old charged with driving with a suspended license apologized for his son’s actions at a hearing before Powers, according to court documents. When the man told Powers he had been having difficulty controlling his son since his wife died, according to an attorney present, the magistrate responded, “You’re a coward, using your wife’s death as an excuse.’’

In another incident described in court documents, an attorney said that while a police prosecutor was testifying at a June 2008 hearing, Powers rose out of his seat, looked at [the attorney] and said loudly: “You’re eyeballing me. Who do you think you are? I’m not afraid of you.’’

In addition, the charges allege that Powers arrives hours late almost daily and fails to render decisions on small claims cases in a timely fashion, often taking four months or more per case.

Powers’s attorney, Peter J. Haley, said yesterday that his client is seeking to have the charges dismissed on the grounds that he was not given an opportunity to appear before the committee to answer the allegations prior to formal charges being filed, as provided under SJC rules.

The committee’s chairman, Judge Gilbert J. Nadeau Jr., wrote that Powers’s behavior violates professional standards and rules set by the SJC and has “eroded the public confidence in the integrity, impartiality, and independence of the courts.’’

An internal investigation into Powers’s conduct by committee lawyers last spring substantiated numerous complaints lodged by citizens, attorneys, and others since Powers took office in 2007 that include a long list of strong adjectives including, “extremely condescending,’’ “confrontational,’’ and “abusive,’’ according to the documents.

After he was shown copies of the complaints against him, Powers called the letter writers “crazy’’ and “mentally imbalanced,’’ the committee wrote.

Haley said in a phone interview yesterday that his client appears to have been “singled out’’ by the committee based upon a few “selectively culled’’ complaints by “disgruntled and disaffected’’ people out of the 20,000 hearings Powers has conducted.

But he said Powers will comply with the reassignment order, which goes into effect Tuesday at a location to be determined by Chief Justice Lynda M. Connolly.

In court papers, Haley calls the committee’s report “intentionally embarrassing, caustic, and incendiary’’ and says it does not take into consideration the “substantial and prolonged’’ efforts Powers has undertaken to address and satisfy the various performance issues raised.

Last May, Powers was suspended two weeks by Connolly for continued tardiness and inappropriate conduct.

The committee alleges Powers “rarely, if ever’’ arrived at the court on time, instead showing up between one and two hours late on a “near-daily’’ basis.

“The period of 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. is the busiest hour in the day in the clerk’s office at Barnstable District Court,’’ the committee contends in its complaint. “During that hour, the assistant clerks and staff assign cases and prepare materials for the day’s hearings, review warrant requests, and criminal complaints, and meet with members of the public.’’

When Powers did finally show up, the committee said, he would often make personal phone calls or surf the Internet on personal matters before getting around to his work. Despite being left to pick up the slack, court staff told committee investigators, “We are better off when he is not here; his demeanor is a nightmare.’’

When investigators asked court staff which aspects of the job Powers did well, they “almost uniformly said, ‘Nothing.’ ’’

Attorneys for the committee had sought to have Powers temporarily suspended with pay, arguing that the magistrate’s presence in the Barnstable courthouse while the hearing process played out would intimidate witnesses from speaking truthfully about his conduct. Many of the staff were initially reticent to answer questions posed by investigators for fear of retribution by Powers, they said.

On Dec. 28, the SJC appointed retired judge Gordon L. Doerfer to serve as hearing officer and to report on his findings to the committee. A hearing date has not been set, Haley said.

Powers was a veteran prosecutor from South Boston who served as an assistant district attorney in Bristol County before being named clerk magistrate in late 2006. He was nominated in a slate of judicial appointments made by Governor Mitt Romney during his final days in office.

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at cpazzanese@globe.com.
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