BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – A Montana judge said he doesn't deserve to lose his job for saying that a 14-year-old rape victim appeared "older than her chronological age" when he sentenced her teacher-rapist to just a month in prison.
But District Judge G. Todd Baugh acknowledged his remarks, coupled with the public furor over the lenient sentence, violated judicial ethics rules. He said he deserves to be censured for failing to promote confidence in the courts and for not avoiding the appearance of impropriety.
The victim's mother said in response that she did not care if Baugh is censured or removed. Neither outcome would accomplish anything for her daughter, Cherize Moralez, who killed herself before the case went to trial, Auliea Hanlon said.
"The damage is done and whether they remove him or not is not going to change anything. All I can say is I hope he doesn't run again," she said.
The 72-year-old judge, first elected in 1984, said he has not decided whether he will seek a sixth term next year. But he has no plans to resign in the face of formal complaints filed by advocates for rape victims. And he repeated his assertion that his comments did not factor into the 30-day sentence handed down in the case.
Besides the comment about the victim's age, Baugh said at the sentencing hearing for her rapist that she "was probably as much in control of the situation as was the defendant."
"I can understand the appearance of impropriety, but I wasn't trying to blame the victim," he said during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press in his chambers at the Yellowstone County Courthouse in Billings. "I don't think it's appropriate to be removed."
Baugh sentenced Stacey Rambold in August for the 2007 rape of Moralez, a high school freshman.
Rambold, a former business teacher at Billings Senior High School, was 47 at the time. Court records indicate he assaulted Moralez three times over the course of several months.
The office of Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has appealed Rambold's sentence as illegal and too lenient. He remains free while the appeal is pending before the Montana Supreme Court.
In a Nov. 13 letter from Baugh to the Judicial Standards Commission, the judge defended the sentence despite his earlier acknowledgements that it appeared to be illegal. He said his description of the sentence as "fair" in the letter referred to the full 15-year-term, most of which he suspended.
In the letter — meant to be confidential but obtained by The Associated Press — Baugh pointed to what he called the "morally good conduct" of Rambold in the years after he agreed to a deferred prosecution.
That 2010 deal allowed Rambold to avoid a conviction until he violated its terms by having unauthorized visits with his relatives' children and entering a sexual relationship with one or more adult women.
A representative of an advocacy group that filed one of seven pending complaints against the judge said the letter shows Baugh still has not taken ownership of his comments.
"He's saying the defendant did the morally right thing. Excuse me, the man raped the girl. What is so morally right about that?" said Marian Bradley, director of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women. "He should be removed or he should remove himself."
Hanlon said after reviewing a copy of Baugh's letter that she was "highly disappointed" in his response.
Baugh also said Tuesday that a member of the state judicial ethics panel told him in October that he would be recommended for censure by the state Supreme Court over his comment.
The claim could not be verified because the Montana Judicial Standards Commission typically does not release information about pending cases. Commission chairman Edward McLean, a state district judge in Missoula, said in an email that its policy is not to comment on any matters pending before the commission.
Baugh declined to say which member of the five-person panel he had spoken with.
"I'm kind of a lightning rod on this and I don't want somebody collaterally damaged," he said.
Commission Executive Secretary Shelly Nash said the Baugh complaints are "still under consideration and review." The matter is expected to come before the panel at its next meeting on Dec. 10, Nash said.
The state argued in court documents filed Friday that Rambold should have served a mandatory minimum of four years behind bars, and that an even longer sentence of 20 years with 10 years suspended was justified.
Rambold's attorney Jay Lansing declined comment.
Prosecutors previously said at least two years in prison was required. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said Tuesday that attorneys for the state decided for the purposes of the appeal to rely on a different section of state sentencing laws. He added that he respected the decision.
Twito said the confusion over which statutes to apply underscored the need for the state Supreme Court to clarify which sentences are appropriate in rape cases.
"It's just confusing," Twito said. "That's been a struggle all along."