Lawyers for Suffolk County Register of Probate Patricia Campatelli urged the Supreme Judicial Court Thursday to “right a wrong” by returning the suspended elected official to her office. But a lawyer for court administrators said that Campatelli must continue to stand aside from her duties in the interests of “smooth operation of the courts.”
The case of Campatelli, who was elected by Suffolk County voters in 2012, now rests with the seven-member high court, which must decide whether court administrators overstepped their authority by effectively suspending Campatelli with pay, beginning in December.
“Every day she is not allowed to go to her office, voters of Suffolk County have lost their voice,” Philip R. Boncore, her lawyer, told the SJC in oral arguments.
Campatelli, who is paid $122,500 a year, is a candidate for reelection this fall. She is being challenged by several other candidates.
Campatelli was initially suspended by court administrators over allegations she punched one of her employees in the face after the pair attended an office holiday party in December.
Court administrators later determined they could not substantiate that charge, but new allegations arose that Campatelli was neglecting her duties and acting inappropriately and unprofessionally.
An investigator appointed by administrators, Ronald P. Corbett Jr., later found that Campatelli often worked only 15 hours a week and spent much of that time taking smoking breaks, scratching lottery tickets, filling out puzzles, and looking at East Boston real estate on the Internet.
He also found that she had created a “fearful atmosphere” in the office, retaliating against some workers who questioned her frequent, lengthy breaks. She was also accused of plotting to get rid of employees so that she could hire her own people.
Campatelli denied all the allegations. Corbett, however, said he did not believe her, saying that, of the dozens of employees he questioned, only Campatelli seemed untruthful, the Globe reported in March.
But Boncore argued to the SJC that the registry of probate — which handles cases involving family issues such as child custody, estates, and divorces — was “well run” under Campatelli in the year since her election and that she never had an adequate chance to answer the charges in Corbett’s report.
In any event, Boncore said, only the SJC, not court administrators, has the authority to suspend or terminate an elected register.
“There is no other way to do it,” Boncore said.
That point of view was backed up by a lawyer for the Association of Magistrates and Assistant Clerks, which represents elected registers, including Campatelli. Peter J. Haley said state law provides a “heightened deference to elected officials” by reserving the power to suspend or terminate them exclusively to a majority of the SJC.
Daniel P. Sullivan, a lawyer for the court administrators, said the probate court under Campatelli was “in disarray.” He said Campatelli frequently worked only half a day or not at all, that she took long breaks with “favored employees,” and used profane language.
Sullivan said Campatelli’s paid administrative leave caused “minimal harm” to Campatelli, while allowing for the “smooth and efficient operation of the courts” during an ongoing investigation into the allegations.
“The balance weighs heavily in favor” of paid administrative leave, he said.
“We are just asking that she stand aside” rather than possibly “act inappropriately” while the investigation goes forward, Sulllivan said.
Prior to the SJC hearing, Sullivan filed a three-page memo that spells out in vivid detail some of the allegations against Campatelli.
In it, court employee Zoraida Diaz says Campatelli contacted her last May, complimented her on the way she dressed, and said: “Let’s go shopping. I need to buy clothes.”
Over Diaz’s protests, Campatelli took Diaz to Macy’s in Peabody and at Downtown Crossing, leaving the office at 1 p.m. and not returning that day, the filings say. Diaz describes Campatelli as loud and profane, adding that Campatelli sometimes refused to speak to some employees thought to be out of favor while she socialized frequently on cigarette breaks with favored employees.
Campatelli’s lawyer asked for expedited consideration of the case in light of Campatelli’s reelection campaign. The justices did not indicate when a decision would be made.
Meanwhile, the allegations against Campatelli are being investigated by the Committee on Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Courts, a committee of the SJC that investigates misconduct allegations. The results of that investigation could wind up back in front of the SJC for the court’s consideration on whether Campatelli’s conduct warrants termination.
Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number of justices on the state Supreme Judicial Court. There are seven justices on the court.