Metro

Judge could face impeachment after admitting sexual involvement with court worker

Judge Thomas Estes in 2017.
Dave Roback/The Republican
Judge Thomas Estes in 2017.

The Judicial Conduct Commission has asked the state’s highest court to take steps to permanently remove the former presiding judge of Belchertown District Court after he admitted at least eight sexual encounters with a court social worker, some of them in his courthouse office.

The commission asked the Supreme Judicial Court to publicly censure and suspend Judge Thomas Estes without pay until the legislature can decide whether to oust him, a process rarely used in state history. Under a 1972 court decision, only the legislature and governor can remove a judge.

Commission members argued, in their 214-page submission to the SJC, that Estes had brought shame on the courts and raised doubts about his objectivity, in part because he discussed court business with the court worker before or after their sexual encounters.

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“The Commission respectfully submits that the gravity and nature of Judge Estes’ misconduct is such that it renders him permanently unable to command the respect and moral authority essential to serve as a judge,” wrote the commission in its filing, which was submitted on Jan. 18, but made public by the SJC this month.

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Estes, who admitted most of the allegations, asked for leniency, suggesting a “fair sanction” would be suspension without pay for four months, public censure, and a letter of apology to his colleagues.

Estes’s lawyer, David Hoose, declined to comment.

The SJC will hold a hearing on whether to refer Estes’s case to the legislature, which could file a bill to remove him, or seek his impeachment through a trial, on April 24.

Court officials could recall only one other judge who had faced impeachment in recent years, in part because judges accused of misconduct usually agree to retire or resign before final punishment is decided.

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The Globe reported in October that the commission was investigating Estes, 51, who was removed from hearing cases without explanation in August. He admitted having a sexual relationship with Tammy Cagle, a clinical social worker, who worked in the Pittsfield drug court, where Estes sat once a week.

Cagle, who has since moved out of state, filed a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination sexual harassment complaint against the trial court in July and her employer, Behavioral Health Network, and later sued in federal court. She said she felt coerced to perform sex acts and that when she tried to break off the relationship he told her “it would be worse for me if someone found out.”

“I am gratified that we are at a time in this country where female victims of powerful men are able to obtain justice and have their voices heard,” said Lenny Kesten, who represents Cagle.

Cagle, who couldn’t be reached for comment, plans to attend the April hearing, Kesten said.

The Judicial Conduct Commission’s filing on Estes’s alleged misconduct includes extensive text messages and e-mails that detail their involvement, which began at a conference in Marlboro and continued at Cagle’s home as well as in Estes’s office. Eight times between November 2016 and July 2017, Cagle performed oral sex on Estes, the commission found.

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During their sexual encounters, the documents say, they discussed the operation of the drug court and, sometimes, specific cases. At least twice Cagle asked him to intercede on behalf of a woman participating in the drug court program. The day after Cagle and Estes’s first sexual encounter, she asked the judge to call the Probation Department to ask that this defendant not be arrested. “She had a clean urine,” Cagle wrote.

Estes said he did not do as Cagle requested, but the commission concluded that their relationship gave the appearance “that his judicial decision-making was subject to inappropriate outside influences.”

Eventually, Cagle expressed misgivings about their relationship, texting, “I don’t think I want this to happen any more.it’s one sided. I’m not getting anything out of it.” Estes agreed, replying, “One sided relationships aren’t fair and don’t work.”

The filing to the SJC contains a statement of contrition that Estes made when he was questioned by the commission. In the statement, Estes said he was “humiliated” that he had to appear before the body: “I hardly have the words to express the shame and sorrow that I feel.”

“I have been unfair to my wife ... Professionally, I have been unfair to the court and my colleagues. I’ve brought disrepute to the bench that I am so proud to be a part of,” he said. “I have also disappointed countless friends and colleagues, who are astonished that I could have been so foolish.”

Estes, who was appointed by then-Governor Deval Patrick in 2014, was reassigned to administrative duties in Holyoke in August.

Estes came under fire in 2016 for showing leniency to sex offenders. Thousands of people signed an online petition calling for his removal after he sentenced to probation a former star athlete who admitted assaulting two unconscious women at a party. Prosecutors were seeking two years in jail for the defendant, David Becker. Estes also was the subject of controversy after he declined to order an ankle bracelet as a condition of bail for a girls’ basketball coach accused of masturbating in a Holyoke Mall store.

When he was removed from the bench in August, some believed it was in response to these controversies.

But the Judicial Conduct Commission focused solely on Estes’s relationship with Cagle, concluding:

“Judge Estes has engaged in willful and egregious judicial misconduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute, as well as conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and unbecoming a judicial officer.”

Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.