Sedgwick County head juvenile court judge faces hearing on complaints

05/15/2014 7:25 AM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

On Thursday, it was the judge who was on trial.

The setting and issues: a formal hearing focused to a large degree on the question of whether he sexually harassed female prosecutors working around him.

Four female prosecutors testified that Timothy Henderson, the presiding juvenile court judge in Sedgwick County, has made a number of offensive sexual remarks to them or in their presence.

The prosecutors, with the District Attorney’s Office, have worked in or around Henderson’s court room and were the first to give testimony in a two-day public hearing before a panel of judges and lawyers who will decide if Henderson’s conduct warrants some kind of action.

At times in tears or with voices catching, the women said that although some of the comments went back years, they did not come forward earlier because they were afraid of making a complaint against the judge. He heads the court system where they work. They said Henderson has a reputation of being retaliatory. The judge’s lawyer, however, tried to show that Henderson was not vindictive.

One of the prosecutors testified that in June 2013, Henderson made a sexually offensive comment about a decoration on a birthday cake for a court employee. His comment referred to a form of masturbation, she said. The cake incident, she said, was a final straw for her.

Another time, after a hearing in which she had to question a particularly hostile witness, Henderson repeatedly asked those around him if they felt the “tension” occurring during the questioning, she testified. It was clear he meant “sexual tension,” partly because he used those two words together the next day, two female prosecutors told the panel.

But Jim Ruane, a contract attorney who works at the juvenile court, said he was around at the time and didn’t recall the judge ever saying “sexual tension.”

The prosecutors described one sexual comment after another, including his allegedly referring to a prosecutor’s attire as fulfilling a “school-girl fantasy.”

One of the women said Henderson joked about her being pregnant after she came back from vacation. Another said he joked about the same thing after she returned from her honeymoon.

One said she feared that Henderson “would ruin my career” if she told on him.

Also, she said, it was known around the juvenile courts that Henderson was politically connected and “that he has a lot of friends in high places.”

Tom Berscheidt, Henderson’s attorney, argued that there are different thresholds for what constitutes offensive sexual comments.

When Berscheidt asked one of the women, “Did you ever tell him that you were offended?” she answered, “No. He’s a judge.”

The complaints

The hearing deals with three separate complaints: that Henderson harassed female prosecutors or staff members, that he e-mailed biased comments about a lawyer, and that he asked a Wichita school board member to intervene for his wife about a job in the school district.

In a statement last month, Henderson said: “I am deeply saddened and hurt by these politically motivated charges. I have worked with these attorneys many years. Only now after I became presiding judge in 2013 and began making changes to juvenile court bringing greater accountability and transparency have these allegations, some as old as eight years ago, been made. I deny these allegations and look forward to the time that I will be able to respond fully to these claims.”

Henderson, elected in 2000, heads the part of the court system that handles child-in-need-of-care cases and juvenile offenders.

On March 21, the Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed a “Notice of Formal Proceedings” concerning Henderson. The complaints, filed by District Attorney Marc Bennett, are based on Kansas Supreme Court rules for conduct.

Count 1 alleges that Henderson “engaged in harassment by making repeated inappropriate and offensive comments resulting in a hostile working environment as well as gender bias.”

Count 2 alleges that on May 11, 2013, the judge sent an e-mail from his personal account to Diane Bidwell, then director of the regional office in Wichita for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, or DCF. The e-mail also was sent to the personal address of Jeff Kahrs, the department’s chief of staff.

The e-mail dealt with representation in guardianship cases by a Wichita attorney, the complaint says. Henderson’s e-mail included this: “For many years he handled the life [sic] birth adoptions from Dr. Tiller.” The judge’s e-mail went on to say that another person could attest that the lawyer had “very liberal positions” and was involved in “gay adoptions,” the complaint said. “Your call of course, but I wanted to make you aware of the situation.” Count 2 says the judge’s e-mail shows “a negative stereotype and/or hostility or aversion toward (the lawyer) and his beliefs which conveys the appearance of bias and prejudice.” The count says that the lawyer and his law firm “were removed from the DCF appointment list.”

On Thursday, Bidwell told the panel that the message she took from the judge was that he personally opposed same-sex adoptions. But she never knew of him not to approve one, she testified.

Henderson testified that he is a political conservative, but regarding issues like same-sex adoptions, he said he doesn’t decide that based on politics but on the law.

The judge said he regrets sending the e-mail. “I expressed a personal political view that I shouldn’t have. I think it was one of those things that I sent it, and I wish I could have taken it back,” Henderson said.

Count 3, which involves a judge being prohibited from using his position for personal advantage, accuses Henderson of approaching Wichita school board member Lanora Nolan, referred to in the complaint as Lanora Franck, and asking that she intervene for his wife.

Henderson’s inquiry “concerned a teaching position or another position within the school district,” Count 3 says. The judge asked the school board member “to investigate the reason his wife was not offered a contract, if appropriate records had been kept, and if there was any foul play involved.”

Franck, who served on the school board from 2001 to 2013, said that after Henderson approached her and asked about his wife not receiving a teaching contract, she checked with the district and learned that Henderson’s wife had been offered a contract but turned it down. Franck, who also is the juvenile justice education liaison for the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, indicated she felt subtle pressure to check into the situation for the judge. Franck said Henderson has a reputation of becoming upset if he feels crossed.

Asked whether Henderson made comments to her of a sexual nature, she said he would compliment her on her dress or how she looked, in way that made her uncomfortable.

“It felt flirtatious,” she said.

The complaints are being handled by the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which helps the Kansas Supreme Court in judicial disciplinary matters. The 14-member commission, appointed by the Supreme Court, consists of six active or retired judges, four lawyers and four non-lawyers.

A judge who faces formal proceedings, as Henderson does, gets a hearing before a panel. If a violation is found, the commission can take a range of actions, from admonishing a judge to recommending that the Supreme Court retire, censure, suspend or remove the judge.

The hearing on the complaints against Henderson continues Friday.

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