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Justices dismiss clerk-magistrate for pattern of violations

The state’s highest court ­removed Robert E. Powers from office Friday, concluding that he willfully and repeatedly violated the professional code of conduct for clerks in his four years on the Barnstable bench.

“The record demonstrates that from the date he started work at the Barnstable District Court through the time of the hearing, Powers fundamentally failed to do his job,” Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote on behalf of the Supreme Judicial Court in a unanimous 40-page decision.

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“He continually abused his authority as clerk-magistrate by his mistreatment of litigants, court personnel, and even the presiding justice of the court. He failed to render timely decisions and sought to cover up his failure by asking employees ­under his direction to change the date of decision to the date of hearing.”

The decision marks the first time in 14 years that a sitting clerk magistrate or register in Massachusetts has been forced from office.

Powers’ removal, effective immediately, ends a disciplinary process that began in ­December 2011, when the Committee on Professional ­Responsibility for Clerks of the Court filed formal charges against the magistrate, urging his dismissal.

The committee alleged that Powers routinely showed up to the Barnstable courthouse at least an hour late every day, leaving the clerk’s office shorthanded at a critically busy time; that he verbally abused staff, litigants, attorneys, and the public with angry outbursts, and that he fell months behind decid­ing minor cases and then ordered staff to alter decision dates in order to conceal the backlog.

Following a six-day hearing in spring 2012, a retired ­Appeals Court judge found that Powers’s conduct and his unwillingness to correct his ­behavior warranted removal.

In deciding to remove him, Gants said the court considered that Powers was given “numerous opportunities to remediate his conduct, yet failed to make any effort to reform his behavior until he had been suspended” and was told that an inquiry into his conduct had been launched.

Attorney Thomas O. Bean, who served as special counsel to the committee, said the SJC’s decision strongly supported the committee’s recommendation.

“I believe the integrity of the judicial system has been maintained, not only in Barnstable, but across the Commonwealth. Outrageous conduct by clerk magistrates will not be tolerated,” Bean said.

“The staff of the clerk’s office showed a lot of guts in being willing to testify against their boss and tell the truth,” Bean added.

Phone messages and e-mails to Powers’ attorney, Peter J. ­Haley , were not returned.

In his defense, Powers ­argued that he should merely be suspended because the accusations against him did not ­involve acts of “moral turpitude,” the standard long used by the court for others who had been forced from office.

But the court disagreed, saying that after considering “the totality” of Powers’ actions, “the public good” was best served by his removal.

Powers also contended that the charges should be dismissed because the Committee on Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Court had not granted his request to appear before the committee prior to the filing of formal charges.

While the court agreed that Powers should have been ­allowed an opportunity to ­address the committee in person, it said he was not deprived of his due process.

The court acknowledged that Powers had seemingly improved his behavior since being reassigned to Taunton District Court in January 2012 pending the outcome of the disciplinary proceedings, but said it was “too late for him to reasonably repair his reputation among the staff, attorneys, and litigants at the Barnstable District Court.”

Clerk magistrates preside in probable cause hearings, small claims matters, and civil motor vehicle charges. Unlike judges, clerk magistrates are not required to retire at age 70. They can only be fired by a court order.

Court records describe some incidents alleged to show his unprofessional conduct.

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

In another incident, an ­attorney said that as a police prosecutor testified at a 2008 hearing, Powers got up from 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.”

Powers, 60, was a career prosecutor who last worked in the Bristol district attorney’s office. He was nominated by Governor Mitt Romney for the Barnstable District Court clerk magistrate job in December 2006 during Romney’s final two weeks in office.

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