Metro

SJC weighing the fate of judge implicated in courthouse sexual relationship

District Court Judge Thomas Estes had a sexual relationship with the clinician as he presided over the drug court in Pittsfield. The clinician says Estes he made her feel like she had no choice but to have sex with him. Estes says it was consensual.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
The Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Tuesday in the highly unusual case of District Court Judge Thomas Estes, who had a sexual relationship with the clinician as he presided over the drug court in Pittsfield.

A Pittsfield judge who has admitted to having repeated sex with a court clinician asked the state’s highest court Tuesday to let him keep his job, during a highly unusual hearing that explored whether his conduct had irrevocably damaged his ability to serve on the bench.

District Court Judge Thomas Estes wrung his hands and shifted nervously in his seat as his lawyer, David P. Hoose, told the Supreme Judicial Court that Estes has already suffered public humiliation and loss of status since the clinician disclosed the sexual relationship last summer.

“He is not only a good judge, he is a superlative judge,” Hoose said. “He is an exemplary judge who has sinned, but who has not sinned so severely that it should cost him his career.”

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Less than 20 feet away sat the clinician, Tammy Cagle, who was flanked by her lawyer, Leonard Kesten, and her teenage daughter. Cagle, who has sued Estes for sexual harassment in federal court, wants Estes off the bench, Kesten said.

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“This is a story of a powerful man taking advantage of an employee,” Kesten said after the hearing. “The relationship was very one-sided. It was hardly a love affair.”

Under state law, only the state Legislature and the governor can force a judge off the bench. But the Commission on Judicial Conduct has asked the SJC to censure Estes and suspend him without pay until the Legislature acts.

Howard V. Neff III, the commission’s executive director, said that Estes’s behavior was so “egregious and willful” that the court had no other choice than to suspend him.

“Unless this court sets a precedent that this type of conduct will absolutely not be tolerated . . . there is little hope that public trust in the administration of justice in Massachusetts will ever be restored,” Neff said.

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Estes, who was once chief justice of Belchertown District Court, has been placed on administrative duties in Holyoke and is unable to preside over cases, according to a Trial Court spokeswoman.

It is extremely unusual for judges to appeal disciplinary recommendations to the state’s highest court. Most choose to resign or retire before a punishment is even decided.

Once the commission hands down a punishment for a judge who violates the rules of conduct, the SJC decides whether to accept or reject it. But the Legislature does not have to wait for the court to act. At any point, legislators can pass a bill calling for Estes’s ouster or hold an impeachment trial before the Senate.

Such steps are rare. The last time a judge was impeached by trial was in 1821, and the last time a judge was removed through a bill was in 1973. Aides to Senate President Harriette L. Chandler and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said no Senate action would take place until the SJC has rendered its decision.

Cagle performed oral sex on Estes eight times between November 2016 and July 2017, the commission found. As a clinician, Cagle recommended which defendants should be treated in drug court, where participants can seek treatment in exchange for avoiding criminal charges or jail time.

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The relationship became public last July when Cagle filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination against the Trial Court and her former employer, Behavioral Health Network. She alleged that they allowed a hostile work environment where she felt coerced to perform sex acts.

Cagle said she was too scared of Estes to refuse his demands for sex. When she tried, he promised her he would not ask her again and said he would help her settle tensions between her and the probation officers in the drug court, who she believed were not following proper procedure.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants referred the case to the commission after the Trial Court learned of the relationship. He recused himself from Tuesday’s proceedings.

The commission did not find that Estes sexually harassed Cagle and found no “direct evidence” that the relationship influenced Estes’s rulings, Neff acknowledged.

But Neff said even the appearance of impropriety was damaging.

“A reasonable person would infer that his decision-making in the Pittsfield drug court was subject to [Cagle’s] influence,” Neff said.

In March 2017, Cagle’s employer placed her on administrative leave following “multiple complaints” about her job performance. She quit the next month and now lives in Georgia.

Estes, 51, who was married at the time and has two children, has described the relationship as consensual. Hoose said Tuesday that Cagle was difficult to work with, which contributed to her removal from the drug court.

“I think the evidence is very clear that Miss Cagle knew that Judge Estes had no say over her placement or employment in that court,” Hoose said. “She knew it wasn’t his call.”

Hoose told the court that were other disciplinary options besides indefinite suspension, such as a temporary suspension or barring Estes from presiding over a specialty court.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.