Judge Held Liable for Religious References, Retaliation

Judge Held Liable for Religious References, Retaliation December 22, 2011

This is a very interesting free speech case out of Michigan. Judge Mark Somers, the chief judge of the 19th District Court in Michigan (a state court, not federal) just lost an appeal of a case in which a jury found that he had fired a woman who worked for him because she complained about his use of religious references during trials.

Julie Pucci, a clerk in Somers’ court in Dearborn, went to the State Court Administrator’s Office to complain about his conduct several years ago and Somers fired her. A jury concluded that this was done in retaliation for her complaints and that the judge had violated her First Amendment rights, among other rights. Somers then appealed the verdict and Judge David Lawson ruled against him, upholding the verdict and the $734,000 payment ordered by the jury.

The court ruled on the basis of Pickering that the plaintiff had a First Amendment right to speak out against the judge. Somers tried to argue that he fired her for cause because her complaints against him disrupted the workplace. The court correctly rejected that ridiculous and authoritarian argument. And the facts stated in the original case are very interesting (these are on Lexis/Nexis, so I can’t link to them).

She has pleaded four causes of action, but the foundation of her complaint is her belief that she lost her job when defendant Somers manipulated a court reorganization with the intention of eliminating her because her domestic relationship with Somers’s rival, Judge William C. Hultgren, without benefit of marriage, clashed with Somers’s religious beliefs…

The parties agree that the relationship between Judges Hultgren and Somers was acrimonious, although it is unclear when that bitterness developed. Perhaps that was one reason Judge Foran was selected to be chief of a court of which he was not a member. In any event, Judge Foran testified that the tension between the two was obvious from the first time he sat in a room with both of them.

Meanwhile, the plaintiff’s service as deputy court administrator proceeded apparently without incident, and she received good reviews about her work. In 2004, however, she raised a complaint about Judge Somers’s practice of interjecting his personal religious beliefs into judicial proceedings and the business of the court. The record indicates that Judge Somers used official court stationery on three separate occasions to send official correspondence affixing a quote from a biblical passage. Judge Foran stated that for the ten months that he served as chief judge, he received ten or fifteen complaints from lawyers “about Judge Somers interjecting his religious beliefs from the bench or imposing sentences based on religion.” One example was when a “Muslim boy got a stiffer sentence by the judge because of the fact that whatever offense he had, it happened during Ramadan.” Others complained that Judge Somers lectured defendants about marijuana, declaring that it was the devil’s weed or Satan’s surge, and that he would ask litigants in court if they go to church. The plaintiff reported these incidents to Mr. Jackson, her supervisor, and regional court administrator Jan Hunt-Kost. Another court employee, Nancy Siwik, actually filed a complaint against Judge Somers with the state judicial tenure commission. There is no evidence in the record of the outcome of the tenure commission complaint, but the regional court administrator instructed Judge Somers to desist from using court stationery to send religious messages.

In an interesting coincidence, Somers was also the judge who put Terry Jones on trial when he wanted to speak in front of a mosque in Dearborn earlier this year. A federal court also overturned that ruling on First Amendment grounds, and rightly so. Somers seems to have a long list of problems as a judge. Perhaps voters should take that into account in the next election.

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