Boston Municipal Court Judge Raymond G. Dougan received more than $550,000 in free legal services from a top Boston law firm to defend him against bias charges, according to a new financial report, raising new concerns about the court system’s willingness to let judges accept large gifts from attorneys.
Dougan relied on free legal services from the law firm Foley Hoag in his successful two-year fight against charges that he consistently sided with criminal defendants. In 2012 alone, Dougan reported receiving $472,000 in free legal services from the firm, according to Dougan’s most recent financial disclosures, filed on April 16.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct, which has long required judges to pay their own legal bills, started to investigate Dougan’s free legal aid earlier this year, but dropped the inquiry after a judicial ethics panel said such gifts were acceptable as long as the law firm did not appear in the judge’s courtroom.
Jill Pearson, the former executive director of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, spoke ironically of the committee’s ruling, saying: “So one of the biggest law firms in Boston gave a Boston judge a gift worth over half a million dollars? What could be wrong with that?”
Pearson, who retired last year, added: “I think the Committee on Judicial Ethics opinion allowing judges to accept gifts of free legal services in misconduct investigations is not only plain wrong but also embarrassing. I can’t imagine that the SJC agrees with it.”
The spokeswoman for the Supreme Judicial Court, which sets standards for the courts, said the justices will privately review the issue. The judicial ethics opinion approving free legal services for judges is only advisory, and the SJC is not bound by it.
“The justices are aware of the opinion and will be discussing it in the near future,” said the spokeswoman, Joan Kenney.
Lawyers from Foley Hoag, one of Boston’s largest law firms, agreed to represent Dougan for free in 2010 after Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley filed a 61-page complaint with the judicial conduct commission charging that Dougan habitually rules against prosecutors in criminal cases.
Lead lawyer Michael B. Keating argued that representing Dougan for free violated no ethics rules because neither he nor the two other lawyers ever appeared before Dougan. A Globe review found that at least one Foley Hoag lawyer has appeared before Dougan in the past.
Keating said he took the case as a way to stand up for judicial independence against a bullying prosecutor.
On Tuesday, Foley Hoag issued a statement defending its work for Dougan:
“The firm’s involvement in this matter is consistent with its ethical obligation to provide the depth and level of legal expertise required to properly defend a sweeping complaint . . . that challenged the judge’s rulings spanning more than a decade. Ultimately, the Commission on Judicial Conduct dismissed the complaint against Judge Dougan.”
Judge Dougan — chief justice of Boston Municipal Court’s central district, which covers much of downtown — could not be reached for comment.
For more than two decades, the Judicial Conduct Commission had required judges to pay for their own legal representation during misconduct investigations. Free legal services could violate the state’s conflict-of-interest law and the code of conduct for judges, both of which prohibit giving gifts to public officials.
After the Globe reported in January that Dougan had received at least $85,000 in free services from Foley Hoag, based on Dougan’s 2010 and 2011 financial disclosures, the commission launched a second investigation into Dougan’s conduct.
But in March, before the commission could rule on the new complaint, the ethics panel that advises judges issued its opinion saying that free legal services are sometimes acceptable.
The five-member Committee on Judicial Ethics said there is no conflict of interest for judges to accept pro bono legal services as long as the lawyer “has not ever and likely will never appear before a judge.”
The Judicial Conduct Commission dismissed the new complaint on April 11. Howard Neff, the commission’s executive director, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Dougan, whose salary is $130,000 a year, paid nothing for the services of Foley Hoag. But his supporters say that Dougan was not in any condition financially to match the legal resources of the Judicial Conduct Commission, which brought in its own independent, pro bono lawyer to conduct the lengthy investigation.
Michael E. Mone Sr., a lawyer who represents judges frequently, said it is impossible for judges with limited means to mount a good defense on their own.
“You’re going to take a guy with a judge’s salary, who is at best middle class, and subject him to an investigation that can bankrupt him, in this case an investigation that goes nowhere,” said Mone, who has represented several judges before the Judicial Conduct Commission and, until the ethics panel’s recent ruling, sent them all a discounted bill.
“There were never any charges brought and nothing came of it. He’s got to be at least in the ballpark with the lawyers who are appointed by the Judicial Conduct Commission” to carry out the investigation, said Mone. “They’re all from large firms and they do it on a pro bono basis.”
But Pearson, who retired last summer after more than 20 years with the Judicial Conduct Commission, said the size of Foley Hoag’s gift undermines the integrity of the court system. “How independent is a judge who is now beholden to hundreds of attorneys?” she asked.
Pamela Wilmot, executive director of the watchdog organization Common Cause, urged state officials to revisit the matter.
“This is a very large sum of money,” she said, “and only increases the need for a second look at the issue of legal representation of judges.
“Our state’s ethics laws normally prohibit gifts over $50 for or because of a public employee’s official position. Large gifts create the perception of bias, as well as the real potential for favorable treatment.”
The two-year investigation of Dougan went all the way to the state’s highest court as the commission’s outside lawyer, J. William Codinha, pressed Dougan to explain the reasoning behind his decisions.
Dougan’s lawyers convinced the SJC that he should not have to tell investigators what his thinking was when he made particular decisions. The landmark ruling also barred investigators from probing judges’ thought processes.
Last Nov. 30, the chairman of the Judicial Conduct Commission wrote Dougan saying the panel had dismissed Conley’s complaint after reviewing a 1,000 page report compiled by Codinha.
That might have been the end of the controversy if Dougan had not filed financial disclosures showing the extensive free legal services he relied on to make his case. He told the SJC that Foley Hoag had donated $15,000 worth of services to him in 2010.
He also reported to the State Ethics Commission that he received more than 100 hours of Foley Hoag’s services in 2011, valued at at least $70,000 and perhaps as much as $100,000, based on the hourly rates of Boston’s top lawyers. Foley Hoag declined to disclose its rates.
Then, just days after the Judicial Conduct Commission dropped its second investigation of Dougan, the judge revealed in 2012 disclosures to the SJC that he had received an additional $472,000 in services from Foley Hoag.
The judicial ethics opinion that cleared the way for Dougan to accept Foley Hoag’s services apparently does not apply to lower-ranking court officials. Robert E. Powers, a Barnstable District Court clerk magistrate who was recently removed from his job, ran up legal bills of more than $100,000 and had to pay them himself, according to someone with firsthand knowledge of the bills.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.