Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr.
According to the testimony of a former deputy clerk, U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr. of Waco forcibly groped her in his private chambers, then kept pursuing her after she rejected his advances. Elisha Knight* further testified that the incident was covered up by the then-chief district judge for the Western District of Texas, Harry Lee Hudspeth.
During a chance encounter with Judge Smith in the federal courthouse in 1998, Smith asked Knight to visit him in his chambers, she said. Later that afternoon, she received an angry telephone call from Smith demanding to know why she had not stopped by his chambers, and Knight said she told Smith that she had been in a training class and did not realize Smith wanted to see her so quickly.
When she arrived in his chambers moments later, Smith grabbed her forcibly and began kissing her and groping her, propositioning her to have sex with him on a nearby couch, she said. Knight testified that Smith smelled of alcohol, and she had to forcibly free herself from his grasp. If Knight's testimony is correct -- and I believe it is -- Smith violated 18 U.S.C. § 2244, which makes "abusive sexual contact" a felony.
Congress eliminated the statute of limitations for that offense but, fortunately for Smith, the limitations period on his misconduct lapsed before Congress eliminated it. Fortunately for the rest of us, there is no limitations period for judicial discipline, including impeachment. And it sounds like there is good reason to impeach Smith.
After the alleged assault on Knight, Smith sent her flowers and made further advances after the incident, she testified. Knight said one of Smith's law clerks, Michael Yurkanin, even called her at home and tried to convince her that she needed to do something to console Smith, because he was distraught and had been unable to drive himself to work, even spending time in a "hospital."
Knight eventually submitted her resignation to her immediate supervisor, Mark Borchardt, but she asked him to tell their supervisors in San Antonio why she was resigning. William Putnicki, who was then and is now the chief clerk for the Western District of Texas, called her at home and told her he was not accepting her resignation but was placing her on paid leave, she said. According to Knight, Putnicki flew to Del Rio to meet with Judge Hudspeth, who was then the chief judge of the Western District (he is now a senior judge in Austin). Knight testified that Judge Hudspeth called her at home afterwards but expressed little interest in her story, then dismissively asked her, "What do you want me to do about it?"
Apparently, Judge Hudspeth did nothing. As set forth in my judicial complaints against Judge Smith and Judge Hudspeth, it appears that Judge Hudspeth misprisioned a felony (which is itself a felony) by failing to report the alleged abusive sexual contact by Judge Smith. At the very least, it appears that Judge Hudspeth violated Judicial Canons 2(A) and 3(B)(5). Shortly after speaking with Judge Hudspeth, Knight resigned from her job at the clerk's office. As you can see from her testimony, the whole sordid episode turned her life upside down.
During her deposition, Knight said she was aware of another female courthouse employee who had been sexually harassed by Judge Smith, but she did not want to name the other employee. I didn't press the issue because I figured the House Judiciary Committee could get the other woman's name if it decided to do its job and investigate Judge Smith. (Incidentally, Knight referred to rumors of a pregnant mistress in the Del Rio courthouse when Judge Hudspeth was presiding there. If you know anything about that alleged incident, please contact me). I deposed Stanley Knight, who was married to Elisha in 1998, and he corroborated much of her story.
I suspect other judges besides Hudspeth knew about what happened to Knight, particularly Judge Edith Jones, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. But first, a little more background. At BoogerCountyMafia.com, you can read about how I found myself in Judge Smith's cross-hairs. In 2009, I filed a civil racketeering lawsuit that named a state district judge as a co-conspirator, and the case ended up in Judge Smith's court. After filing the case, the state judge's estranged brother informed me that Judge Smith was a personal friend of the state judge. Oops. After one hearing in which Judge Smith was particularly nasty toward me, a courthouse employee asked me if I knew about Judge Smith's friendship with the state judge, and I told her that I did. The same employee then told me about what happened to Elisha Knight, and she also told me about Judge Smith's severe alcohol problems.
According to that employee, Judge Jones made a special trip to Waco to interview courthouse personnel about Judge Smith's alcohol problems, although that employee was not sure of the date. Judge Jones only served as chief judge from 2006-2012, so the trip most likely occurred within that window. Given the number of people in the Waco courthouse who knew about the incident with Elisha Knight (and were still talking about it), I have a hard time believing that Judge Jones did not hear about it. After interviewing numerous employees, Judge Jones allegedly gave Judge Smith the option of going to rehab or being suspended from the bench. According to my source, Judge Smith spent about two months in rehab before returning to the bench.
Twenty years ago, and four years before the alleged assault on Elisha Knight, Judge Smith caught a lot of flak for the draconian sentences that he handed out to the Branch Davidians. Several of them are still in prison, and I have spoken with one witness who observed Judge Smith drinking at lunch during the trial. I have to wonder how many trials he presided over while he was drunk, and how many people he sentenced to prison while he was drunk. Don't they have a right to know whether their sentences were the product of Judge Smith's infamous drunken rage? Don't we all have a right to know that?
Apparently not. If you're a federal judge, you get to spend a few weeks at Betty Ford and then everything gets swept under the rug. Judge Smith's case reminds me somewhat of a federal judge in Memphis who was suspended for a year by the Sixth Circuit after some bizarre behavior on the bench. His suspension seems to be common knowledge among lawyers in Memphis, and there is speculation that the judge is bipolar, but the Sixth Circuit never announced the suspension, the press never reported it, and he returned to the bench (I'll probably have more to say about that in Liars and Horse Thieves).
Or consider the case of U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent of Galveston, who was indicted in 2008 for abusive sexual contact and attempted aggravated sexual abuse of female courthouse employees. He later pleaded guilty to a single count of obstruction of justice, began serving his prison sentence, and was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives before finally resigning from the bench. Judge Kent was a severe alcoholic, and people throughout the courthouse knew he was a drunken sexual predator, yet he was allowed to run wild for years. Read the testimony of Cathy McBroom, one of his victims, and consider the fact that law enforcement officers in the federal courthouse knew what Judge Kent was doing to her and yet they apparently felt powerless to stop him. See June 3, 2009 Hearing of the Task Force on Impeachment, (McBroom testimony at pages 153-163).
The greater scandal may have been the reaction of his fellow judges, who very nearly swept the matter under the rug. Chief Judge Jones and her colleagues initially gave Judge Kent a four-month paid suspension for "sexual harrassment." As columnist Rick Casey pointed out in the Houston Chronicle, the judges were downplaying the fact that Judge Kent had sexually assaulted his victims, tearing the clothes off one of them and putting his mouth on her breast. Were it not for the relentless coverage of the Houston Chronicle -- and the fact that Judge Kent's victims refused to be cowed -- he very likely would have gotten off with nothing more than the four-month paid vacation for "sexual harassment."
In December of 2009, Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle wrote “Secrecy may help protect misbehaving judges” and “Secrecy of chief federal judges questioned,” both of which should have set off alarm bells in Washington. Here's the takeaway: the current system is a farce. The House of Representatives long ago punted its Constitutional duty to investigate and punish judicial misconduct to committees of judges in each judicial circuit. Under current policy, the House of Representatives will not undertake an investigation of a judge unless the committee of judges has first recommended that Congress act. However, as with Judge Smith, Judge Kent, and Judge Frank Montalvo (discussed elsewhere on this website), the committees generally try to cover up scandals rather than restrain, punish, or expel bad judges.
That needs to change, starting with Judge Smith and Judge Hudspeth. Elisha Knight testified that her experience with Judge Smith ended her career, wrecked her health, and turned her life upside down. Impeachment and conviction would deprive Judge Smith and Judge Hudspeth of their retirement benefits, and it sounds like that's the least that they deserve.
* Elisha's last name has since changed, but I am using her former name to protect her privacy.