Sedgwick County judge accused of sexual harassment is reassigned

07/08/2014 6:48 PM

08/27/2014 7:33 AM

A Sedgwick County judge facing formal complaints – including allegations that he repeatedly made offensive sexual remarks to female prosecutors – has been reassigned.

Chief Judge James Fleetwood on Monday confirmed that Judge Timothy Henderson, who has been the presiding judge at the juvenile court facility south of downtown, has been moved to the civil court department at the downtown Courthouse.

The reassignment, effective immediately, separates Henderson from the women accusing him of making offensive comments. And there is a further separation because the District Attorney’s Office, which employs the four prosecutors who claim Henderson made the comments, does not routinely handle civil cases.

The alleged comments were a main focus of a hearing in Topeka last week before a panel of judges and lawyers. An examiner’s attorney presenting testimony against Henderson told the panel that the evidence was so serious and pervasive that Henderson should be removed from his judgeship.

On Monday, Fleetwood emphasized that he reassigned Henderson after Henderson requested it. Henderson sent the request by e-mail Friday, Fleetwood said.

Fleetwood, who as chief judge has responsibility for judges’ assignments, said of the change, “I felt it was best, for all concerned, for the organizational change to take place at this time.”

Fleetwood said he didn’t make the reassignment earlier, before the hearing, because of the “rights of due process and the right to be heard.”

During a deposition before the same panel a week ago, Fleetwood had these answers when questioned by Adam Hall, an examiner’s assistant retained by the Commission on Judicial Qualifications:

“Do you have any personal experience with sort of off-color or blue humor being used by Judge Henderson?”

“Yes,” Fleetwood responded.

“And in your personal experience, is that off-color or blue humor of a sexual nature?”

“Yes.”

“No further questions.”

Henderson testified Friday before the panel, which held a public hearing at the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka on three formal complaints against him:

•  that he made offensive sexual comments to four assistant district attorneys working in or around his courtroom. The prosecutors are Melissa Green, Sandra Lessor, Amanda Marino and Kristi Topper.
•  that he sent a biased and prejudicial e-mail about a Wichita attorney, Martin Bauer.
•  that he asked a Wichita school board member, Lanora Nolan, to inquire about a teaching position for his wife.

Henderson’s attorney, Tom Berscheidt, said Friday that the judge apologized for the e-mail and was simply inquiring for a family member.

Regarding the claim that Henderson created a hostile working environment for the women, Henderson denied that he made some of the comments and said others were taken out of context. Henderson has contended that the sexual harassment complaint was politically motivated. His attorney brought out 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.

District Attorney Marc Bennett testified last week that he was concerned for his prosecutors when he raised the sexual-harassment allegations about Henderson with Fleetwood in September.

On Monday, when asked about Henderson’s reassignment, Bennett said, “I respect Judge Fleetwood’s decision.” Bennett said he couldn’t comment more until the case is resolved.

It’s not clear when the panel will announce its finding. If the panel decides there are grounds to remove Henderson from his judgeship, it would have to make that recommendation to the Kansas Supreme Court, which has authority to remove an elected judge.

Henderson’s attorney, Berscheidt, declined to comment on the reassignment.

Fleetwood said that Judge Robb Rumsey will replace Henderson as the presiding juvenile court judge. Rumsey “has significant experience over there and should do a good job,” Fleetwood said.

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