I doubt much will come of the investigation of United States District Judge Robert N. Chatigny. Oh, there may be some tongue-clucking and perhaps even the stern rapping of knuckles. But consequences? The only real consequences will be the end of any hopes the judge had harbored of movin' on up of the judicial ladder.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has decided to investigate a complaint brought against Chatigny by Connecticut state prosecutors. At issue is the judge's failure to recall that he had once sought to represent a serial killer whose execution the judge later blocked. So much for the appearance of impropriety.
The killer's name was Michael Ross. Ross waived off any potential habeas claims, and, after almost two decades on death row, was set to face the needle. Ross' lawyer was summoned to a hastily arranged teleconference with Chatigny and the various lawyers involved in the case. Although the United States Supreme Court had signed off on the death, and the execution was hours away, Chatigny threatened Ross' lawyer with loss of his license if the execution were not stopped.
So the lawyer stopped the execution.
Why'd Chatigny do that? Interest of justice, he said. One of the joys of his position is that he gets to vote his "conscience." Question for Chatigny: Who appointed you to play Plato?
In an earlier teleconference, a member of the Attorney General's office asked in stunned chagrin whether the judge had some sort of personal interest or conflict of interest in the case. How else to explain the judge's bizarre sua sponte behavior -- virtually rewriting a federal habeas petition from the bench and opining about Ross's innocence?
"No," the judge replied. And then his now infamous remark about his freedom to decide the issues according to his own conscience.
Well, it turns out the judge forgot to mention that years earlier he represented the state's criminal defense lawyer's club in an effort to get permission to file an amicus brief on Ross' behalf in the state's Supreme Court. Put another way, he once tried to become Ross' lawyer.
What defenses are available to Chatigny?
Oops, I forgot? Or will he have the courage of his convictions and go down swinging in defense of his apparent belief that he was appointed not judge, but philosopher-king?
Chatigny is an activist judge, feeling unconstrained by his robe to step into civil cases at will and sculpt them to his liking. One senses that he would be happier in Europe where the inquistorial role sidelines the advocates, and judges are free to make of a case what they will.
A special committee at the Second Circuit will consider the matter. It will be chaired by the circuit's chief judge, John Walker, circuit Judge Peirre N. Leval and Southern District of New York Judge Michael Mukasey. Unfortunately, the hearings are confidential. Why?
Perhaps the Senate Judiciary Committee will give more than lipservice to the request for an inquiry from Connecticut lawmakers, who earlier requested an impeachment probe. There ought to be a public inquiry about Chatigny's role in the Ross fiasco.