A judge scrutinized for his handling of the arraignments of several counter-demonstrators after the Straight Pride Parade is being investigated by the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, the panel announced Tuesday.
The probe into the actions of Boston Municipal Court Judge Richard Sinnott will also look into his decision to order a defense lawyer, Susan Church, taken into custody during a Sept. 4 court hearing, the commission said in a statement.
The investigation was started “in response to multiple reports appearing in the media recently,” according to the statement.
Sinnott, through a Trial Court spokeswoman, said Tuesday that “I look forward to a rapid resolution of this matter.”
The judge ordered Church removed from the courtroom after she accused him of interfering with prosecutors’ discretion in one of the cases. Specifically, Church said he lacked authority “to prevent the district attorney’s office from entering a nolle prosequi,” which is a legal action taken when prosecutors decide not to pursue a case, usually because they don’t have enough evidence or believe it’s not worth expending resources.
After citing case law and arguing with Sinnott, Church was handcuffed and removed. She appeared three hours later before Sinnott, who released her without criminal charges.
Asked for comment Tuesday, Church said via e-mail:
“At its core, our system of justice can only function well when Lawyers vigorously argue on behalf of their clients in the courtroom. The Judicial Conduct Committee should be commended for investigating the abuse of power by Judge Sinnott.”
She continued, “Lawyers should be free to advocate for clients without fear of handcuffs and incarceration. The Judicial Conduct Committee’s investigation should send a strong message that arrests of lawyers for vigorous advocacy will not be tolerated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
Legal experts said the inquiry will allow both sides to state their cases.
David Siegel, a professor at New England Law | Boston, said the commission’s probe is significant “because it will be an investigation that allows both the judge to respond and for a full development of the facts.”
“There were lots of witnesses and an audio recording of the interaction,” Siegel said. “This will be the forum where you can learn the judge’s side of it.”
Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, said Sinnott’s refusal to accept a nolle prosequi from prosecutors was “norm-defying” and the commission’s decision to investigate sends a messages that judges will be held accountable.
“It’s very heartening the commission is taking a look,” he said.
Robert Bloom, a Boston College law professor, said Sinnott could present an explanation for his actions. If a lawyer’s zealous advocacy “borders on disrespect for the court, the judge does have the power to find that person in contempt,” he said.
The harder argument for Sinnott, Bloom said, is likely to be why Sinnott did not allow the prosecution to terminate a case.
“That’s kind of stepping outside the bounds of being a judge,” Bloom said.
On Sept. 3 and 4, prosecutors asked Sinnott to dismiss charges against protesters without criminal records who were arrested on nonviolent charges at the Aug. 31 Straight Pride Parade in downtown Boston.
On the first day, Sinnott denied most of the motions to dismiss charges, but on the second day he agreed to drop cases against seven protesters and delay the arraignments of five more.
In several dropped cases, including two involving alleged assaults on police, prosecutors cited a lack of probable cause in the police reports.
On Sept. 9, a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court handed Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins a victory in the matter, ruling that Sinnott had no authority to force her office to push ahead with the prosecution of a Straight Pride Parade protester.
Justice Frank M. Gaziano, a former state and federal prosecutor, wrote that Sinnott’s insistence that prosecutors arraign Rod Webber infringed on the separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches. Prosecutors are part of the executive branch.
“The prosecutor’s sole authority to determine which cases to prosecute, and when not to pursue a prosecution, has been affirmed repeatedly by this court since the beginning of the 19th century,’’ Gaziano wrote, citing cases that dated to 1806.
Rollins filed an emergency petition with the SJC on Sept. 4, arguing Sinnott had overstepped his authority when he refused to accept a prosecutor’s bid to drop the disorderly conduct charges against Webber and others arrested in clashes with police.
If a complaint is ultimately made to the SJC, the high court may “accept or reject the recommendation of either the Commission or the judge or may impose whatever discipline it deems appropriate,” the rules say.
Rollins, in a statement, said the commission is “the appropriate body to investigate this matter,” adding that she “respects the process and has no comment at this time.”