A retired federal judge accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl three decades ago — when he was a federal prosecutor and she was a witness in one of his cases — won't face discipline from the judiciary, according to newly released documents first reported by BuzzFeed News.
A committee of federal judges that reviewed the case concluded that any allegations against Richard Roberts, the former chief judge of the federal district court in Washington, DC, fell outside the scope of the judiciary's disciplinary system because they predated his time as a judge.
The committee also rejected arguments that Roberts had a duty to report any alleged misconduct that predated his time on the bench.
Roberts is facing a civil lawsuit in the US District Court for Utah filed by Terry Mitchell, a Utah woman who has accused Roberts of raping her when he was a 27-year-old federal prosecutor and she was a 16-year-old witness in one of his cases. Roberts admitted to having an "intimate" relationship with Mitchell at the time, but denied the assault allegations and is fighting the lawsuit.
Mitchell and the Utah attorney general's office each filed judicial misconduct complaints against Roberts last year. The panel of judges that reviewed the case, the Judicial Council of the 10th Circuit, dismissed all of the allegations, and Mitchell and the Utah attorney general's office did not appeal, according to documents released by the 10th Circuit on Thursday.
The 10th Circuit's order will be sent to the House Judiciary Committee, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. A spokesperson for the Utah attorney general's office told BuzzFeed News that although Roberts is no longer serving on the bench, because of how he stepped down — he retired due to a disability and, as a result, is still receiving an annual salary — there is still action that Congress could take, including pursuing impeachment.
When the accusations against Roberts were first reported in March 2016, then-representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who was the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that he would work with the House and Senate Judiciary committees "to determine next best steps to ensure justice is served." There has been no action in Congress since then.
An attorney for Roberts declined to comment. Mitchell's attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.
Roberts was confirmed to the US District Court for the District of Columbia in 1998. Before joining the court, he had spent the bulk of his career as a federal prosecutor, including in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
In March 2016, Mitchell filed a lawsuit accusing Roberts of raping her while he was in Utah in 1981 prosecuting a civil rights case. Roberts' lawyers issued a statement in response to the lawsuit last year saying that Roberts had a "consensual" intimate relationship with Mitchell in 1981 and denied her allegations of assault.
"Roberts acknowledges that the relationship was indeed a bad lapse in judgment. However, the relationship did not occur until after the trial and had no bearing on the outcome of that trial," Roberts' lawyers said at the time.
The 10th Circuit judicial council found that the federal law that governs judicial misconduct cases only applies to conduct by judges once they take the bench.
"Here, Judge Roberts’ sexual relationship with the witness, the focus of the misconduct allegations, occurred over 17 years prior to his appointment as a federal judge. The Judicial Council concludes that the Act does not give the Judiciary authority to review that conduct," the council wrote.
The council noted that there were other ways that a judge could be held accountable for preappointment conduct, including through a state bar disciplinary system or in Congress. The DC Bar's disciplinary arm doesn't disclose the existence of attorney ethics cases until there's a final action, and there has been no public action related to Roberts nor indication of a pending case.
The judicial misconduct case had a convoluted path. It started with the Judicial Council for the DC Circuit, which was Roberts' home jurisdiction. But when the DC Circuit's order dismissing the allegations was challenged, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the case to the 10th Circuit, which covers a large swath of the western United States, to review the matter.
The 10th Circuit council issued its order in July dismissing the complaints against Roberts. Mitchell and the Utah attorney general's office did not appeal, but Roberts did. He challenged a section of the 10th Circuit's order that revealed information about an illness he had cited in leaving the bench on disability. With the case still pending, the 10th Circuit's July order remained under seal.
Mitchell's misconduct complaint included an allegation that Roberts dishonestly claimed a disability when he retired, citing the fact that Roberts stepped down a few days after the Utah attorney general's office filed a misconduct complaint and the same day that Mitchell filed her lawsuit in federal court. The 10th Circuit judicial council dismissed Mitchell's allegation, finding that Roberts did have a "serious condition that significantly impacts his ability to perform as a trial judge." The council determined that in doing so, it was necessary to include information about his disability in the order.
Roberts appealed to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the final stop within the federal courts system for misconduct complaints. That committee sided with the 10th Circuit council, finding that the nature of Roberts' disability was central to the claim raised by Mitchell, so including it in the order "is both warranted and necessary."
The judicial conduct committee's memo was released on Thursday, along with the 10th Circuit council's original order from July.
Daniel Burton, a spokesperson for the Utah attorney general's office, said that even though the claims against Roberts were dismissed, they were pleased with a footnote in the final memo from the judicial conduct committee that said that Roberts' retirement didn't preclude any review of complaints against him. The committee wrote that disability retirement was a proper step for judges who could no longer serve, but "it is not, however, a safe harbor from allegations of
judicial misconduct." Burton said that the attorney general's office would continue to follow the case as it is referred to Congress.
"If the political branches determine that this behavior was inappropriate and that he lied about it under oath, there could be further ramifications," Burton said.
Zoe Tillman is a legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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