Panel asks SJC to suspend Judge Estes over sexual affair
PITTSFIELD — The judge who helped launch Pittsfield's drug court in 2016 admits that he engaged in "serious misconduct" by having sex with a program clinician.
But Judge Thomas Estes doesn't think it should cost him his job.
Estes says in documents submitted to the Supreme Judicial Court that while he had an affair that might cost him his 20-year marriage, his punishment should be less severe than an indefinite suspension without pay.
That is the recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, after a monthslong review of a case first reported Oct. 21 by The Eagle.
Citing "clear and convincing evidence" of impropriety, the state panel recommends that Estes no longer serve on the bench — and that the executive and legislative branches of government could elect to consider his impeachment.
The matter will be taken up by the SJC at an April 24 hearing.
Under a 1972 law, only the governor and Legislature can remove a judge short of the mandatory retirement age of 70.
A spokesman for Gov. Charlie Baker said the administration backs the panel's recommendation for an indefinite suspension for Estes and will then allow the Legislature to consider a bill that would result in the judge's removal.
"The Baker-Polito administration has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, believes this behavior is entirely inappropriate and that Judge Estes should be removed," Brendan Moss, a spokesman for Baker, said in a media statement.
David P. Hoose, the Northampton attorney representing Estes, said Saturday that elected state officials should not be intervening in the legal process affecting his client.
"I think it's completely inappropriate for the governor or the Governor's Council to comment on anything before the Supreme Judicial Court," Hoose told The Eagle.
The panel's finding is outlined in a Jan. 17 filing with the SJC that initially was sealed from public view and came to light this week.
Howard V. Neff III, the commission's executive director, wrote in a final submission to the high court that Estes engaged in "willful and egregious judicial misconduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute, as well as conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and unbecoming a judicial officer."
The filing details agreed-upon facts of the case and was signed by Estes and Hoose.
The judge's decision to engage in sex with a court clinician, Neff wrote, should end his career.
"The Commission ... respectfully submits that the gravity and nature of Judge Estes' misconduct is such that it renders him permanently unable to command the respect and moral authority essential to serve as a judge," Neff wrote.
Estes, the former First Justice of the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, was shifted without explanation to administrative duties in August, shortly after the program clinician, Tammy Cagle, filed a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint.
Estes, who was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014, after a long career as a public defender, continues to receive his $172,194 yearly salary.
Cagle, a clinical social worker, said she lost her job after she told Estes she wished to end the affair —an allegation the judge denied in responses to the MCAD last fall and repeats in documents made public this week.
The MCAD began an investigation last July and alerted the high court about the nature of the complaint, a step that triggered a probe by Neff's commission.
Cagle later withdrew the bias complaint and instead filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Estes and her former employer, where it is pending.
The Eagle sent a text message to Cagle seeking comment, but did not hear back.
Cagle's Boston attorney, Leonard H. Kesten, said she is gratified by the call to censure Estes.
"We're certainly pleased that the commission is taking action," he said in an interview Saturday.
Kesten likened Cagle's situation to that of other women said to have been disadvantaged by men in powerful social positions.
"It's a huge disparity in power. It's an exploitative relationship, quite obviously," Kesten said. "It's all consensual, except it isn't. There was a quid pro quo and he took advantage of her."
In the joint filing to the SJC, Estes expresses remorse for his affair with Cagle and acknowledges that he brought "disrepute" to the court and undermined public confidence in the legal system.
But he argues, both in passages in the SJC submission and in a lengthy personal statement in an attached exhibit, that he did not allow the relationship to affect his work on the bench.
That is a central question before the SJC, since Neff's panel concluded that Estes' relationship with Cagle created the appearance of the judge not being able to perform his job impartially and without "inappropriate outside influences."
The panel cites text message communications between Estes and Cagle concerning the fate of a drug court participant. Cagle, in the message, asks Estes to intervene to prevent the woman from being taken into custody.
Though he exchanged messages with Cagle about the woman's plight, Estes denies he acted outside his role as judge in violation of judicial norms.
In the joint filing, Estes acknowledges having an "inappropriate sexual relationship" that included acts of oral sex on the grounds of the Belchertown courthouse.
But he disputes the number of times the two met to engage in sex — eight, according to the panel —and asserts that he was initially pursued by Cagle after they had become friendly through work on the drug court.
In her MCAD filing, Cagle contends that Estes threatened to make life difficult for her if she exposed their relationship. The judge says in the joint filing to the SJC that Cagle did not express remorse about their activities until the final time they met, in July 2017, months after she had lost her job, had moved to Georgia and sought out a meeting with him upon a return to the area.
"He emphatically denies that he has engaged in sexual harassment or that his relationship with Ms. Cagle in any way affected his performance of his judicial work," the Jan. 17 filing says.
Estes also refutes claims that he tried to help Cagle repair what grew to be poor working relationships with members of the Probation Department in Pittsfield, except to attempt generally to "mediate" those concerns. He says that when together in private, he and Cagle spoke only in "general terms" about court business, an assertion that addresses a prohibition in judicial conduct against having "ex parte communications."
Estes makes plain in the documents that the affair has cost him personally. He says in a statement provided to the commission that he had moved out of his family's Northampton home.
"Leaving my wife and sons to live in an apartment has been the most heartbreaking experience of my life," he writes.
The judge expresses "shame and sorrow" for engaging in the affair. "I will regret it for the rest of my life," he writes. "Professionally, I have been unfair to the court and my colleagues. I've brought disrepute to the bench that I am so proud to be part of."
While the Commission on Judicial Conduct backs Estes' removal from judicial service, the judge asks for lighter consequences.
In the SJC filing, Estes and Hoose say the judge should remain on administrative duties he is performing in Holyoke and should be subject to four months of suspension without pay, compared with the indefinite period backed by the panel.
Estes offers to be the subject of public censure, to write a letter of apology, to remain in private psychotherapy counseling about his behavior, to be reassigned to a different judicial region and not to take on work with any of the state's specialty courts.
In its own recommendations, the panel asks the SJC to censure and suspend Estes for what it terms "a reasonable time" that would enable other branches of government "to consider, if they wish, the question of whether he should retain his judicial office ...."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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