Published March 10, 2010
The Senate Judiciary Committee has postponed the hearing for a controversial Court of Appeals nominee after the panel received a letter from a home-state prosecutor blasting the candidate as a judicial loose cannon and after Republicans raised concerns about bias in favor of sex offenders.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny gained notoriety in 2005 for his role in trying to fight the execution of convicted serial killer and rapist Michael Ross, also known as The Roadside Strangler, whom Chatigny had described as a victim of his own "sexual sadism."
His conduct in that case, which included threatening to go after Ross' attorney's law license, as well as his ruling in 2001 against sex offender registries created under Megan's Law, has caused a commotion among Republicans on the judiciary panel.
"I've never seen conduct like this," said a Republican source. "I'm shocked that the White House vetted this guy ... and still put him up for a judgeship."
The nomination is relatively fresh. President Obama submitted his name Feb. 24 for a seat on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, calling him a "first-rate" legal expert and "faithful" public servant.
With the hearing originally set for Wednesday, Republicans led by their ranking member, Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said they wanted more time.
"Senator Sessions and the Judiciary Republicans have asked for a delay in light of the nominee's extremely lengthy record and the fact that he was brought up so unusually quickly," Sessions spokesman Stephen Miller said.
Behind the scenes, Republicans are taking a hard look at Chatigny's role in the Ross proceedings which they say could be disqualifying -- particularly on the Court of Appeals, the last line of review before the Supreme Court.
"You're letting him be the final review for a lot of people, and he's shown this alarming bias in sex crime cases," a GOP committee aide said.
Chatigny's office declined a request for comment. The White House could not be reached.
Chatigny stunned those involved in the serial killer case in early 2005 by pressuring Ross' attorney on a conference call to challenge his scheduled execution even though Ross had said he did not want to fight.
The judge had raised concerns about whether Ross was mentally unfit and whether prison isolation had led to despair -- at the time of the conference call, federal appeals courts had overturned two prior orders from him postponing the execution.
According to a transcript of that Jan. 28 call, the judge threatened to go after the law license of Ross' attorney, T.R. Paulding.
"So I warn you, Mr. Paulding, between now and whatever happens Sunday night, you better be prepared to live with yourself for the rest of your life," Chatigny said. "And you better be prepared to deal with me if in the wake of this an investigation is conducted and it turns out that what Lopez says and what this former program director says is true, because I'll have your law license."
Ramon Lopez was an inmate who had written a letter to Chatigny saying Ross had been brainwashed by mental health professionals.
Ross was convicted of killing four women but had confessed to killing eight, raping most of them. He was sentenced to death in 1987 and had been on death row nearly two decades when Chatigny engaged in the last-minute battle with others on the case.
On the conference call, the judge repeatedly stuck up for Ross, saying he suffered from "this affliction, this terrible disease" and suggesting Ross "may be the least culpable, the least, of the people on death row."
"Looking at the record in a light most favorable to Mr. Ross, he never should have been convicted," Chatigny said. "Or if convicted, he never should have been sentenced to death because his sexual sadism, which was found by every single person who looked at him, is clearly a mitigating factor."
In the end, the execution was temporarily delayed and ultimately carried out. But in the aftermath, seven prosecutors from Connecticut filed a complaint against the judge with the Judicial Council of the Second Circuit. Among the complaints were that the judge had threatened Paulding and that he had not disclosed that in 1992 he filed an application to file a legal brief in support of Ross' appeal -- though the judge never ended up filing that brief. He was later cleared of misconduct.
This year, in a letter dated March 5 to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Sessions, one of those prosecutors wrote that Chatigny's actions in the run-up to the execution "call into question his suitability" for the Court of Appeals seat.
"Judge Chatigny completely abandoned the role of neutral and detached magistrate and instead became an advocate for the position held by the parties who were seeking to stop the execution of Michael Ross," wrote Michael O'Hare, an assistant state's attorney in Connecticut. He described the Jan. 28 conference call as a "tirade" in which the judge was "threatening and intimidating" others.
After receiving the letter, as well as a request from committee Republicans to postpone, Leahy canceled the Wednesday hearing. According to Leahy's office, the hearing was postponed because of the GOP request and will be held at some point, though it's not clear when.
A Democratic committee aide said Leahy was "happy to accommodate" the Republicans' request. The aide did not discuss whether Democrats share the Republicans' concerns.
"The information related to that case has been in the public domain for quite some time, so it's not like something that's been kept from public view. ... This is why we have nomination hearings," the aide said.
A few years before the standoff over the execution, Chatigny had also issued a ruling that Connecticut's sex offender registry was not constitutional. Though the federal appeals court upheld the ruling, it was later unanimously reversed by the Supreme Court.
The judge does have his supporters. Connecticut Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman issued a joint statement late last month saying Chatigny had "consistently demonstrated his impressive legal abilities and a profound commitment to the rule of law."
They called him an "outstanding addition" to the Court of Appeals and pledged to work toward his "swift confirmation" through the Senate.