Metro

Pittsfield judge who had sex with court clinician set to resign after SJC orders indefinite suspension

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

Embattled Pittsfield judge Thomas Estes is expected to resign Friday, according to people with knowledge of his plans. The decision comes after the state’s highest court on Thursday ordered an indefinite suspension for Estes, who admitted to having sex with a clinician who worked in his court. The punishment is a rare outcome in a state where judges are nominated by the governor and, once appointed, seldom forced off the bench.

“It is beyond dispute that these egregious, deliberate, and repeated acts of misconduct severely diminished respect in the eyes of the public not only for this judge, but also for the judiciary,” the Supreme Judicial Court wrote in a six-page order that also censured Estes.

Estes, who was once chief justice of Belchertown District Court, is expected to submit a letter of resignation on Friday, according to multiple people with knowledge of his plans.

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Estes, who had been on paid administrative assignment in Holyoke, did not return a call seeking comment. His current salary is $178,444.

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His lawyer, David Hoose, e-mailed a brief statement to the Globe that did not say whether Estes would resign.

“We are very disappointed in the SJC decision,” Hoose said. “Judge Estes is weighing his options.”

In its order, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigated Estes and found the 51-year-old judge had lost credibility after the clinician, Tammy Cagle, revealed the sexual relationship in a complaint she filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

“The sanction we impose is severe not because we seek to punish the Judge severely, but because . . . we seriously question whether he can command the respect and authority essential to the performance of his judicial function,” the SJC wrote in its order, which did not list a specific justice as the author.

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There were no dissents among the six justices who heard oral arguments in the case in April. Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who referred the case to the commission after the Trial Court learned of the relationship, recused himself.

Cagle, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Estes, said the judge sexually harassed her and created a hostile work environment in his drug court, where Cagle had been assigned as a clinician.

She said she felt coerced into having oral sex with Estes, who was married at the time and used his office e-mail to arrange encounters with Cagle. He also used the office to meet with Cagle for sex.

Before and after the encounters, Cagle and Estes would discuss matters of the drug court, where participants can seek treatment in exchange for avoiding criminal charges or jail time, the commission found.

Neither the SJC nor the commission made findings of sexual harassment, but the justices said Estes’s actions compromised the integrity of the court and reflected “complete disrespect for the dignity and decorum of the court.”

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Cagle’s lawyer, Lenny Kesten, said Cagle was grateful for the ruling.

“Ms. Cagle is gratified that the Supreme Judicial Court recognized that no matter who you are you cannot abuse the power you have,” he said.

In legal circles and on Beacon Hill, there were calls for Estes to resign.

“Judge Estes shouldn’t be behind the bench,” Governor Charlie Baker told reporters on Thursday. “And the SJC ruled today that he is suspended indefinitely without pay and they censured him, which I think is a pretty good start.”

“I think the SJC took strong action and strong action is appropriate,” state Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, said. “It’s pretty egregious conduct.”

Martin Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said Estes should step down.

Judges “have a duty to uphold with dignity and respect the impartiality of the court system,” Healy said. “Suspended Judge Estes is undermining judicial independence the longer he resists growing calls for his resignation.”

A spokesman for Senate President Harriette L. Chandler said, “the Senate has received the court’s decision, and is reviewing it to determine the appropriate next steps.”

A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the speaker is also reviewing the court’s decision.

Under state law, only the Legislature and the governor can force a judge off the bench, either through a bill calling for the judge’s ouster that must be signed by the governor and the Governor’s Council or through an impeachment trial before the Senate.

Such steps are rare. The last time a judge was impeached by trial was in 1821, and the last time a judge was removed through a bill was in 1973.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.