Monday, December 10, 2007

Judge's "shocking" words at meeting lead to censure

By Stephanie Rice
The (Vancouver, Wash.) Columbian

Clark County Superior Court Judge John Wulle has been censured for "demeaning, offensive and shocking" behavior at a training conference last year.

Wulle, 57, appeared before the state Commission on Judicial Conduct on Friday in SeaTac.

The judge and seven other people from Clark County, including a deputy prosecuting attorney, a juvenile probation officer and a defense attorney, attended "Planning Your Juvenile Drug Court," July 24 to 28, 2006, in Los Angeles.

According to a nine-page document posted on the commission's Web site, Wulle used profanity, made an obscene gesture in response to a request to lower his voice, and referred to Clark County's group facilitator as "the black gay guy" while at the Los Angeles event. Also, after the facilitator said, "Clark County gets a star" for finishing an assignment, Wulle said, "I don't need a star. I'm not a Jew."

Several witnesses said Wulle smelled of alcohol, according to the censure order.

"[Wulle] denies consuming alcohol at any time during the conference," the order reads. "He recalls suffering from a cold and taking cough syrup, and suggests the odor from the cough syrup may have been misconstrued as an odor of alcohol."

For sanctions, Wulle must take 10 hours of judicial-ethics courses and obtain a drug and alcohol evaluation. If a counselor recommends treatment, then the counselor must submit progress reports to the commission every six months.

Wulle must also take seven hours of racial, religious, sexual-orientation and diversity training.

A censure is the most severe disciplinary action the commission issues, short of asking the state Supreme Court to suspend or remove a judge. Wulle is the first Clark County Superior Court judge to be censured, and only the second local Superior Court judge to be disciplined.

In 1995 a judge was "admonished," the lowest form of discipline, for providing written testimony on behalf of a friend in a child-visitation case in another county. Judges are not supposed to give such opinions without a subpoena.

Wulle said Friday he will use the incident as a learning experience.

"It was never my intent to offend anyone, and I apologize to anyone who was offended," he said.

When Wulle first responded to the allegations in February, he denied impropriety. He wrote to the commission that he has learned "that I cannot step out of my role as a judge even when I'm 2,000 miles away."

But Wulle was sent to the conference in the first place because of his role, the commission noted.

"Because of the special position judges hold in society — as standard bearers of fairness and impartiality — a judge's conduct of personal behavior must, at all times, be above reproach," the commission wrote.

"[Wulle's] actions not only reflected poorly on himself, but also on his fellow team members, his court, Clark County and the state of Washington," the commission wrote. "[Wulle's] inappropriate behavior significantly undermined the team's respect for him. Witnesses at the conference variously described his actions as embarrassing, demeaning, offensive and shocking. Several team members discussed [Wulle's] problematic behavior with their colleagues and supervisors — further eroding public regard for him and the judiciary."

The commission said Wulle's conduct "appears to have been an aberration" and that witnesses do not think Wulle is racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic.

Wulle's reputation is "generally that of a thoughtful jurist," the commission wrote.

But the commission said it censured Wulle, as opposed to a less-severe sanction, partly because of his attitude.

Wulle has demonstrated a lack of personal insight, had never apologized and, when confronted by witnesses or other judges who heard about his behavior, has been "dismissive" of their concerns, the commission wrote.

Wulle, a former assistant attorney general, was appointed by Clark County commissioners to the District Court bench in 1997.

In 2000, he was elected to an open seat on the Superior Court bench. He will be up for re-election next year.

Clark County did start a juvenile drug court this year, but after presiding Superior Court Judge Robert Harris learned about Wulle's behavior at the conference he reassigned the project to Judge James Rulli.

Harris was out of town Friday, but Judge Barbara Johnson, the second-most senior member of the bench, said the censure order is taken seriously.

"We hope that the appropriate steps are taken to learn from it and move on," she said.

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