"[T]he height of absurdity ... even more senseless ... reckless, outrageous, and desperate ... desperate and ridiculous ... unfathomable logic ... a most bizarre challenge ... shocking, obscene, and insidious ... absurd and alarming ... an incoherent, rambling jumble of averments ..."
This is somewhat out-of-the-ordinary rhetoric for a state Judicial Conduct Board counsel to use in responding to a motion filed by a sitting judge under investigation. But then, Pennsylvania's Ann H. Lokuta appears to be an out-of-the-ordinary judge.
Judge Lokuta sits on the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County (=Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), meaning she works (when she shows up for work) in this building, which looks rather as if an overenthusiastic hostess had cajoled a retired judge into putting on a party hat. (Folks in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre seem to think it's some kind of architectural masterpiece, though, so maybe my architectual taste has been ruined by living too long in a landscape of low mud houses slowly crumbling in the relentless sun.)
(Lokuta's case raises some interesting secondary questions, which will be considered in a later post. This post, however, is devoted to celebrating the many ingenious ways in which Judge Lokuta - allegedly - proved her utter unfitness for the bench.)
One of her ways of keeping her office a lively place is to give "contradictory instructions concerning procedures she wants followed and then when such procedures are followed, berating court personnel or personal staff for doing as she instructed." Examples from the disciplinary complaint against her include but (we are informed) "are not limited to":
[T]he Respondent instructed tipstaff/law clerk Judith Flaherty that she wanted her to enter her courtroom using the door connecting her office area directly to the courtroom. When court was next in session, Flaherty followed the respondent's instructions. The Respondent then reprimanded and screamed at Flaherty, advising that Flaherty was to enter the courtroom through the door located in the hallway between respondent's office area and the courtroom, not from the door connecting her office area directly to the courtroom. Respondent further commented that she did not know what was wrong with Flaherty and why Flaherty could not do what she instructed. When court was next in session, Flaherty entered the courtroom through the door located in the hallway between respondent's office in the courtroom. The Respondent again reprimanded Flaherty, instructing that Flaherty was to enter her courtroom using the door connecting her office area directly to the courtroom.
In the same vein, Lokuta supposedly told her court reporters that, "'Every time I speak, it's on the record,' and required them to take down everything she said, including her speech as she walked to the bench." But when a court reporter followed that instruction, Lokuta made a show of her displeasure in front of the whole courtroom, "increduously querying, 'What are you doing? This is not on the record. Do you see a case here?"
(Lokuta's speech is italicized throughout the complaint, although I'm not sure if that's to indicate shouting or just to emphasize that she's being directly quoted.)
Lokuta did the same sort of thing to attorneys in her courtroom, or so it's alleged:
During a court proceeding, attorney Virginia Murtha-Cowley, Esq. Assistant Public Defender, after questioning a witness or presenting an argument, sat down in her chair at counsel's table. The Respondent demanded to know why Attorney Murtha-Cowley sat down. The Respondent chastised Murtha-Cowley and directed that she was not to sit down until the Respondent told her to sit down. Attorney Murtha-Cowley then stood up and remained standing until the case was finished and continued standing until the next case was called. The respondent then demanded to know why Attorney Murtha-Cowley was still standing.
On another occasion, Lokuta allegedly gave attorneys 3 1/2 minutes to complete oral argument, then interrupted them while the clock was running to say that they needed to slow down because she could not possibly write that fast.
While an attorney, Ingrid Cronin, was making an opening statement in a trial, Lokuta - it is alleged - called the court reporter to the bench to comment on a juror's hair. When Cronin paused, the judge "snapped, 'Counsel continue.'" When Cronin waited and the stenographer "scurried to the stenographic machine", Lokuta said again, "Counsel continue!" All that, needless to say, in front of the jury.
On another occasion the judge asked to speak to the Deputy Court Administrator. He tried to say that he couldn't speak with her at the moment because he had to take his wife, who had recently undergone a radical mastectomy, to an oncology appointment. Lokuta - so it is said - responded by shouting to a deputy, "He's harassing me! Get him away from me!" She went so far as to send a letter to the presiding judge accusing the Deputy Administrator of being "physically menacing" and "threatening". An investigation was conducted, which concluded that the Deputy Administrator did nothing wrong but the judge was "agitated, combative and unreasonable".
An editorial in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice informed its readers that the judge was accused of using her law clerks "to do work at her house, including washing her car, shoveling snow from her sidewalks and doing yard work for days and weeks at a time." But what was most interesting about the editorial was its headline: "Time had come for Lokuta probe."
A news story that ran the same day explained why the time had come: "Misconduct charges aimed at Lokuta not surprising to area legal professionals". It quoted one Wilkes-Barre attorney, Sherry Dalessandro, as saying she was "not surprised at all" by the disciplinary complaint.
Another attorney who said she wasn't surprised was Beth Sindaco, "Lokuta’s former law clerk/tipstaff. In 1999, she filed a formal complaint against the judge with the state Judicial Conduct Board, alleging Lokuta repeatedly demanded sex as a term of her employment." Nothing came of Sindaco's complaint , presumably either because the Judicial Conduct Board found Lokuta's denials more credible than Sindaco's accusations, or (more probably) because accusations of judicial misconduct, like treason, require the evidence of two witnesses to the same overt act.
These attorneys weren't surprised by the charges because Lokuta is a judge who - if the allegations are to be believed - has long been universally known as sadistic, untruthful and irrational. The complaint says she's been acting this way "[s]ince taking the bench in 1992". It describes incidents that supposedly occurred in 1999, 2003, "between 1999 and 2001", "[s]ince approximately 1996", "[s]ince approximately 2001", "[i]n September 2001", and so on. Moreover, it says, in recent years she often hasn't bothered showing up for work, or has shown up late, even working out a routine with her staff by which she could sneak into her office by a back way without being observed by the attorneys and parties waiting for court to convene.
How long is a judge permitted to act this way before being asked to account for herself? In Pennsylvania, apparently, the answer is: years and years.
One possible explanation is offered by yet a third female attorney quoted in the Citizens Voice story. Ingrid Cronin, the lawyer who was told to continue with her opening statement while the court reporter scurried back to his machine, told the paper: "I have no memory of the incident".
That might be because the incident never happened, of course. Or perhaps Cronin is such a tough cookie that judicial abuse doesn't faze her. Or perhaps, just perhaps, her memory is Alberto Gonzales-like. Certainly I believe her when she told the reporter she "didn't want to comment on the allegations."
Sindaco made her charges back in 1999, so it's safe to say she wasn't asking her former boss for reference letters after that. Dalessandro was held in contempt by Lokuta, and had the contempt order reversed on appeal (I can't find the appellate opinion on the Web). Neither had anything (more) to lose by commenting publicly. But if I were in Cronin's shoes, I would hesitate to complain publicly about being abused by a judge, even a nutty judge. How would it help me to become known to other judges as someone who ratted out one of their colleagues?
Say Mafia boss Corleone hates, despises and fears Mafia boss Sollozzo. Don Corleone learns that you informed on Sollozzo. That may not be a reason for Don Corleone to kill you, but it's also not a reason for him to trust you.
A lawyer who files a complaint against a sitting judge has every reason to fear he's putting himself into a similar situation. Other judges might hate Lokuta, say, but why would they like a lawyer who testified against her? Once omertà is broken, it can't be reclaimed. That's why, to switch genres, it's usually much more prudent for a lawyer interested in a successful career to do a Sergeant Schultz.
And that, of course, is why Judge Lokuta was allowed to abuse so many people over so many years before the "time had come" for an investigation.