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Panel recommends public censure of Judge Timothy Henderson

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 2:54 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 6:48 p.m.

A state panel has recommended to the Kansas Supreme Court that Sedgwick County Judge Timothy Henderson be disciplined by public censure for violating rules of judicial conduct.

The findings, filed Tuesday, say among other things that Henderson “engaged in harassment as well as gender bias by making repeated inappropriate and offensive comments in the presence of female attorneys employed by the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office.”

The panel of judges and lawyers, which in May heard testimony from Henderson and the witnesses against him, concluded that many of his “explanations, or denials, of the allegations are not credible.” The panel determined that the evidence substantiated each of the three counts against him.

The panel concluded that Henderson violated judicial rules including that a judge “shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.”

The panel’s recommended discipline – public censure – is a published reprimand by the court and, while serious, is the least severe sanction the Supreme Court can impose on judges.

Henderson, who until recently had been presiding judge in the juvenile court department for Sedgwick County, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. His attorney also could not be reached.

Under Supreme Court rules, a judge facing possible discipline has the option of filing exceptions to the panel’s findings.

District Attorney Marc Bennett, who made the decision to file the harassment complaint against Henderson, said of the panel’s findings: “We respect the panel’s decision and will await final word from the Supreme Court.” When that decision will come is not clear.

The panel also faulted Henderson for sending an e-mail from his personal account to officials with the state Department for Children and Families, which led to Wichita attorney Martin Bauer and his law firm being removed from a DCF appointment list dealing with adult guardianships. The panel found that the judge’s e-mail showed “a negative stereotype and/or a hostility” toward Bauer. Henderson’s attorney has said that the judge apologized for the email.

The panel’s third finding was that Henderson approached Wichita school board member Lanora Nolan and asked that she intervene on behalf of his wife to help her gain a job with the school district. Henderson’s attorney has said he was simply inquiring for a family member.

The most detailed portion of the findings, in a 12-page document filed with the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, dealt with allegations of pervasive harassment and gender bias. The panel said evidence showed that Henderson’s conduct was directed at multiple assistant prosecutors: Melissa Green, Sandra Lessor, Amanda Marino and Kristi Topper. For example, the panel found that the judge had joked in 2011 that one of the female attorneys liked to have a lot of sex, embarrassing her. In a 2013 incident, the panel said, there had been a child-in-need-of-care case involving a girl from China who had been forced into long work hours in a “financial-type human trafficking.” Henderson asked one of the prosecutors “if she needed someone to help her with house work because he knew a young Asian girl who was available,” the panel said.

Henderson has denied that he made some of the comments and said others were taken out of context. He has contended that the sexual harassment allegations were politically motivated. His attorney brought forth testimony that the District Attorney’s Office was unhappy with administrative changes made by Henderson in the juvenile court system, which handles cases of children who might need to be removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse.

The panel’s unanimous recommendation for public censure goes to the state Supreme Court. The panel also could have recommended suspension or removal from office. The high court can adopt, amend or reject a panel’s recommendations.

During the May hearing in Topeka before the judicial panel, an examiner’s attorney presenting testimony against Henderson argued that the evidence was so serious and pervasive that Henderson should be removed from his judgeship.

The five panel members who heard the evidence are attorney Jeffery Mason, chairman, of Goodland; Judge Robert Fleming, from Parsons; Judge David King, from Leavenworth; Judge Nicholas St. Peter, from Winfield; and attorney Diane Worth, of Wichita.

In May, Henderson was reassigned from the juvenile court to the civil court department. The reassignment separated Henderson from the women accusing him of making offensive comments.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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