Crime & Courts

Kansas Supreme Court considering censure for Sedgwick County judge

Judge Timothy Henderson
Judge Timothy Henderson File photo

Some state Supreme Court justices expressed concern Wednesday that a public censure was not a strong enough sanction for a Sedgwick County judge who sexually harassed female lawyers.

Judge Timothy Henderson apologized for his behavior during a hearing on whether the high court should censure him based on findings from the Commission on Judicial Qualifications.

The panel found convincing evidence that “Henderson engaged in harassment by repeatedly making inappropriate and offensive comments in the presence of female staff employed by the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office, resulting in a hostile working environment as well as gender bias.”

It also concluded that he had discussed cases without having all parties present and sent an e-mail from his personal account to the Department for Children and Families that conveyed hostility and bias toward an attorney, which led to DCF removing his firm from its list of firms to use.

The Supreme Court did not announce a decision Wednesday, nor a timetable for further action.

Justice Dan Biles repeatedly expressed concern that censure, a public scolding from the court that would allow Henderson to remain on the bench, was not enough.

“How does public censure protect the people doing business with the 18th Judicial District?” Biles asked Todd Thompson, an investigator for the commission.

Thompson said censure provides a warning that will deter future misbehavior, but when pressed said “the ultimate protection is to remove that public official from that position.”

Thomas Haney, the Topeka attorney representing Henderson, said censure would be adequate. “The sanction of public censure of a sitting judge is a serious sanction. There’s no question about that. It’s not a slap on the wrist.”

Biles remained unconvinced.

“In this case we have victims – this is what I’m wrestling with – you didn’t dispute the facts, and you have victims that were afraid to report (harassment from) a judge, who was politically connected and vindictive,” he said.

Justice Carol Beier noted that several of the women lawyers reporting harassment had appeared before Henderson in court. Biles voiced skepticism that censure would protect women dealing with the judge in the future.

‘When did the light go on?’

Henderson apologized profusely for his behavior.

“I’ve embarrassed myself. I’ve embarrassed my family…and I’ve embarrassed the court,” he said. Henderson called his behavior stupid and sinful. “I know everything I’ve worked for my whole life in this moment is in your hands and I know how serious that is.”

He said that he had made “the foolish mistake of adding political commentary” in his e-mail to DCF about attorney Martin Bauer, with whom he disagrees politically, but who he called “one of the sharpest probate lawyers in the state.”

In May, Henderson was reassigned from his juvenile court position, where he had been presiding judge, to a position in the civil court department.

Justice Eric Rosen expressed skepticism that reassigning the judge to a new division addresses the commission’s concerns and Beier noted that the judge did not move voluntarily. She asked what Henderson had done to address his issues since July.

Henderson said that he has repeatedly met with his pastor about the transgression and spoke with a number of therapists and that he has recused himself from any cases involving the District Attorney’s Office.

Biles reminded Henderson that he emphatically denied the charges when the complaint was first made and denied wrongdoing during a May hearing, asking him, “When did the light go on?”

Henderson said that he was stunned by the sexual harassment charges. He said most of the conversations took place in the courthouse’s law library, which he called a bawdy environment with a lot of gallows humor. He said he has stopped going into the law library and has made sure to have his administrative assistant present when he meets with personnel from the DA’s office.

“I forgot I was a judge. I shouldn’t have done that and it was wrong,” he said.

Henderson said he knew in his heart that he would not repeat the behavior.

Additional complaint filed

District Attorney Marc Bennett attended the hearing in Topeka along with five female staff members. After the hearing, some of the DA staff members were in tears and exchanged hugs.

Bennett, speaking on behalf of the group, said the DA’s office awaits action from the court and that his experience has taught him to “try not to gauge how a court’s going to act based on oral arguments.”

“We remain committed to seeing this through,” he said.

An additional complaint was filed against Henderson in October alleging that he was not honest during the May hearing, which led to the commission’s recommendation for censure.

Justice Marla Luckert recused herself from the case without explanation. Judge Joseph McCarville from the Reno County District Court sat on the bench in her place.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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