Looking weary and a bit rumpled — but sounding contrite — Clerk Magistrate Robert E. Powers stood before a roomful of his fellow clerks, judges, and lawyers at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston on Wednesday and declared, “I’m embarrassed to be here.”
The controversial Cape Cod clerk magistrate was appearing at a hearing before the Committee on Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Court, making one final push to keep his job.
“I am sorry for the mistakes that I made,” Powers said. “I was thick-headed. I just didn’t get it.”
Last December, that same panel charged Powers with misconduct, alleging that his behavior in court was routinely abusive and belligerent; that he failed to process cases in a timely fashion, sometimes instructing clerks to back-date decisions to make it appear he was not falling months behind; and that he arrived hours late to work nearly every day.
Gordon L. Doerfer, a retired Appeals Court judge who served as the hearing officer during a proceeding last spring to review the accusations against Powers, has recommended the committee remove the magistrate from the bench. Powers has served as a clerk magistrate in Barnstable District Court since 2007.
Powers’s attorney, Peter J. Haley, called his client a lifelong public servant — “not a hack” — and said complaints about his behavior were “moments of failure” that he has since taken responsibility for.
“Clearly, there are incidents Mr. Powers would like back,” Haley said.
The last time a sitting clerk or register was removed from office was in 1999, when Middlesex Register of Probate Robert Antonelli stepped down, according to a spokeswoman for the Supreme Judicial Court.
Unlike judges, who must retire at age 70, clerk magistrates in Massachusetts hold lifetime appointments.
Haley described complaints about Powers’s behavior and the supposed backlog of undecided cases as merely “anecdotal.”
The attorney urged the committee to take less drastic measures, such as imposing sanctions or reassigning Powers to another court, for example the Boston Municipal Court.
Attorney Thomas O. Bean, appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate the claims against Powers, asked the committee to adopt the hearing officer’s recommendation to remove the magistrate.
He disputed Powers’s assertion that he had reformed his conduct in recent months and dismissed the idea that the charges against Powers were based on a handful of unreliable complaints.
“This isn’t just a man with a bad day; this is a man with a bad four years,” Bean told the committee, referring to testimony from more than 35 witnesses, including Powers’s supervisors, colleagues, and underlings, which detailed his aggressive and disrespectful conduct as well as the repeated, failed efforts since 2007 to get Powers to acknowledge and change his ways.
In court documents filed last December against Powers, the father of a 17-year-old boy charged with driving with a suspended license apologized for his son’s actions at a May 2008 hearing, telling Powers that since his wife died, he had been having difficulty controlling the boy. According to an attorney present at that hearing, Powers told the father, “You’re a coward — using your wife’s death as an excuse.”
Bean noted that even after Chief Justice of the District Court Lynda M. Connolly suspended Powers for two weeks in May 2011, the magistrate was offered professional training to correct his behavior problems. “He turned it down,” Bean said.
“The only time Mr. Powers has apologized is when he got his hands caught in the cookie jar,” Bean said.
Following the hearing, the committee went into a closed-door session. The panel has three months to decide Powers’s fate and deliver a decision to the Supreme Judicial Court.
He was reassigned to Taunton District Court in January pending the outcome of the disciplinary process.