TOPEKA — Evidence against Sedgwick County Judge Timothy Henderson is so serious and pervasive that he should be removed from his position, an official told a panel Friday.
Arguing before the same panel, meeting the past two days at the Kansas Judicial Center on three formal complaints against Henderson, the judge’s attorney said any punishment should be limited, perhaps an admonishment. The evidence wasn’t clear and convincing, the judge’s attorney said.
The one complaint that seemed to dominate the testimony dealt with the accusation that Henderson, who presides over the juvenile court system, made offensive comments of a sexual nature to female prosecutors who work in or around his courtroom.
Earlier Friday, Henderson denied making the comments and said some remarks were taken out of context.
Henderson told the five members of the panel that he would request on Friday afternoon that he be reassigned from his current position as presiding judge over the juvenile court system to a position at the downtown Wichita courthouse, away from the juvenile court building where the conflict between him and the female prosecutors arose.
It wasn’t clear by Friday night whether he had made the request. “But he’s going to,” said his attorney, Tom Berscheidt.
The panel of judges and lawyers could admonish Henderson on its own. If it feels removal is warranted, it will make that recommendation to the Kansas Supreme Court. The panel said it would make its finding in writing but did not say when that would happen. The complaints are being handled by the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which helps the Kansas Supreme Court in judicial disciplinary matters.
In his closing argument, Adam Hall, the examiner’s attorney presenting evidence against Henderson, told the panel that the judge’s offensive comments became more frequent and more serious. The judge made the remarks to female prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office about sexual tension, women’s private anatomies, how women were dressed and a particular sex act, according to the testimony Hall presented.
Andrew Hinshaw, a court services officer, testified Friday that he heard the judge refer to one of the prosecutors, Melissa Green, as “the new hot DA.”
The other prosecutors bringing the accusations, in testimony, are Amanda Marino, Sandra Lessor and Kristi Topper.
In his argument, Hall said of the prosecutors who were the targets or recipients of the comments: “Those individuals had one thing in common: They were all women. And they were all subordinate to the judge.”
A second complaint the panel heard dealt with an e-mail Henderson sent about a Wichita attorney, Martin Bauer, to an official with the state child protection agency that contained Henderson’s personal or political view. The e-mail led to the attorney being removed from a list of attorneys that the agency works with in adult guardianship cases, Hall said.
A third complaint was that Henderson asked then-Wichita school board member Lanora Nolan to inquire about a teaching position for his wife.
“We see no alternative to removal,” Hall concluded.
In the closing argument defending the judge, attorney Berscheidt contended that the judge’s comments didn’t constitute what would produce a hostile work environment.
What might be offensive to someone is innocent or even complimentary to another, he said. The evidence “can’t be based on someone’s belief or innuendo,” he said.
Regarding the e-mail, Henderson was wrong to express political or personal views, Berscheidt said. Still, he said: “That’s not a hanging offense. In all candor, he should be admonished.”
As for the judge’s contact with the school board member, Henderson was only inquiring about a family member, and there was no evidence he was trying to assert influence, Berscheidt said.
The complaints about the e-mail and the contact with the school board member came from evidence found during an investigation of the complaint about sexual harassment.
In other testimony Friday, Angela Wilson, senior administrative attorney for the District Attorney’s Office, gave the inside story of how she learned that the prosecutors were upset over comments attributed to Henderson.
“I saw a pattern that I thought had to be addressed,” Wilson said.
Based on the law, she said, she felt an obligation to help bring the sexual harassment concerns forward to her bosses, including District Attorney Marc Bennett.
Bennett testified that he was concerned for his employees and discussed the situation with Judge James Fleetwood, the chief administrative judge, and that Fleetwood said he would speak with Henderson.
Later, Bennett said, he got word from Fleetwood that Henderson would not be moving from his position as the presiding juvenile court judge.
It was Bennett who brought the complaint about alleged sexual harassment that led to this week’s hearing.