Should a judge who admitted to engaging in sexual acts with an employee in his court — including in his chambers — keep his job?
That's the unusual case in front of the Supreme Judicial Court, which will decide the future of Judge Thomas Estes, who had been the presiding judge of Belchertown District Court in western Massachusetts.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct, a state agency, wants Estes suspended indefinitely, which could pave the way for his permanent removal from the bench. Estes is arguing for a four-month suspension, saying the humiliation of his conduct is punishment enough. He's currently on administrative duty and not hearing cases.
Judge Estes's attorney, David Hoose, admits his client made some bad decisions starting in November 2016, when the married father of two first had a sexual encounter with a social worker, Tammy Cagle.
Estes says the trysts over eight months were consensual. Cagle says he pressured her into sex, including at the courthouse.
Hoose says that while Estes behaved badly in his personal life, that didn't spill into the courtroom.
"Every single person who was spoken to [by the commission] said they could not recall a single incident where it appeared Judge Estes favored the position of Ms. Cagle," he said.
Estes listened to the SJC hearing Tuesday in the John Adams Courthouse as his attorney argued for his job. About 15 feet behind him, Cagle sat next to her daughter and lawyer.
In Massachusetts, judges have a lifetime appointment, until a mandatory retirement at age 70.
Commission Executive Director Howard Neff said that makes it even more critical that the SJC act.
"Not only will the public not necessarily trust the administration of justice in Judge Estes's courtroom if the court does not adopt our recommendation, but indeed the public to a degree at least won't trust the administration of justice of the judiciary in general as long as he is allowed to wear a robe in Massachusetts," Neff told the court.
Mentioned in the hearing — but not up for decision by the justices — is Cagle's sexual harassment lawsuit against Estes. That's pending in federal court in Springfield.
Cagle's attorney, Leonard Kesten, compared Estes to disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — a powerful man who pressured women with less power into sexual favors. Kesten calls it "chutzpah" that Estes hasn't resigned.
"I have told multiple clients that the first time you unzip in a situation like this, that's the end of your career," Kesten said. "It's just a question of when."
The legislature and governor will have the final say on whether Estes is removed from the bench, something lawmakers haven't done since 1973. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he supports Estes's removal.
This report was originally published by WBUR.