“I believe my career in law is over,” Judge John Wulle told a panel of 10 judicial board members weighing his fate.
Wulle was the final witness Tuesday in his two-day disciplinary hearing before the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct. The hearing concerned allegations that he showed a pattern of rude and ill-tempered courtroom behavior, based on his conduct during four court actions over three years.
Wulle lost his re-election bid this month to lawyer David Gregerson, and noted to the board that his final day in office is Dec. 31.
“Unless you kick me out early,” the judge said.
That is possible, said Steven Reisler, attorney for the commission. In his closing argument, Reisler recommended that board members censure Wulle with a recommendation to the state Supreme Court for his suspension and, possibly, a removal.
Reisler reasoned to the board that Wulle has already been censured, in 2007, for his behavior at a Los Angeles training conference, so the discipline had to be more severe. He suggested a minimum five-day suspension from the bench.
It’s unclear how the discipline would affect the remainder of Wulle’s term, as commission members have up to 90 days to make a written recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which has the final say.
There have been cases where Superior Court judges have been penalized after their term in office had expired. For instance, a former Pierce County judge, Michael Hecht, was ordered in 2010 to pay back a certain amount of wages after the Supreme Court retroactively suspended him, said Reiko Callner, the commission’s executive director.
Judge takes stand
When he took the stand, the judge said he regretted his courtroom behavior, but believed the commission blew the case out of proportion.
“I don’t believe this is a pattern of behavior,” Wulle said. “It was four instances in four years.”
He said his sporadic outbursts were the result of the stress of working long days, presiding over gruesome cases, such as murders. He called his behavior being human.
“I did the best I could,” Wulle said.
In his closing argument, however, Reisler pointed out that being a judge carries a position of prestige and power, so Wulle should be held to a higher standard.
To illustrate a pattern in the judge’s behavior, Reisler noted the 2007 case in which Wulle was at a training conference and made profane comments and an obscene gesture. The judge also referred to an official at the conference as “the black gay guy.”
Reisler said the judge may not behave that way every day, “but what is here is that there’s a quality of unpredictability. Unpredictably, these things pop up.”
Courtroom statements that have brought Wulle under fire include telling attempted murder defendant Matthew Hastings that he would have him gagged. The judge also told Hastings that he grew up in New York and “we know how to take care of kids like you,” Reisler said.
In a separate court proceeding, Wulle told a juvenile he was “stupid” for wanting to plead guilty to a probation violation without an attorney present, and, in another hearing, he told a man using a Russian interpreter, “This isn’t the Soviet Union.”
Show of support
Attorneys who testified in support of the judge agreed Tuesday morning that those episodes were an anomaly.
“There have been times when he hasn’t exercised the best patience,” Vancouver defense attorney Tom Phelan testified. “But overall, I would say he has shown a demeanor of courtesy to litigants.”
Phelan, an attorney for 32 years, said he’s seen other judges lose their patience in their courtroom. He said the allegations in the four court actions don’t influence how he views the judge.
Wulle’s attorney, Josephine Townsend, also called Vancouver police Officer Chris LeBlanc to the stand. He was present for Hastings’ 2009 trial.
LeBlanc, who was shot by Hastings in a police standoff, said he “applauded” the judge for his words to Hastings. LeBlanc said Hastings was dangerous, threatening and disrespectful during the trial and sentencing hearing and Wulle “called his bluff.”
“Sometimes you have to put people in their place,” LeBlanc said. “Sometimes you have to tell them, ‘That’s not acceptable.’”
Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker; firstname.lastname@example.org; 360-735-4516.