A former member of the Judicial Conduct Commission has asked a legislative committee to research possible impeachment procedures, with the apparent intent of forcing 3rd District Judge Leslie A. Lewis from the bench.
Rep. LaMont Tyler, R-Salt Lake, co-chairman of the Legislature's Interim Judiciary Committee, confirms he was approached by Rep. David Ure and has instructed the committee's staff to "tell us what our powers are, what we have to do, to remove a sitting judge from the bench."While Ure did not mention a judge by name, Tyler said, the Kamas Republican "had someone specific in mind." Ure declined to comment.
But three independent sources - all speaking on condition of anonymity - identified the judge as Lewis, former presiding judge in the 3rd District.
Several complaints, including some made this summer, are on file with the conduct commission, the state's judicial watchdog, accusing Lewis of mercurial, threatening and abusive behavior, the sources said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Howe confirmed Friday that a report of Lewis allegedly losing her temper in the courthouse prompted him to ask Lewis to meet with him and Judge Pamela Greenwood two weeks ago.
Howe is chairman of the Judicial Council and Greenwood, a member of the Utah Court of Appeals, is vice chairwoman.
The council makes policy for the state's courts and can impose corrective measures with a judge's cooperation.
Lewis was asked only to explain what happened, and Howe and Greenwood did not suggest a leave of absence, counseling or any other corrective measure, Howe said.
Lewis' attorney, Frank Wilkins, on Friday refused to acknowledge the meeting or address the possibility of impeachment proceedings. He said he is unaware of any complaints before the Judicial Conduct Commission and has no reason to believe there will be any.
"We will not prolong or dignify this matter with any further comment," said Wilkins, a retired Supreme Court justice.
Part of the impetus behind Ure's inquiry into impeachment is the fact the conduct commission was essentially crippled by a Supreme Court decision on July 10.
Ure and three other lawmaker-members were removed from the commission after the high court decided those legislative appointments violate the doctrine governing the separation of powers.
The six remaining voting members (two of whom are in doubt because they are governor's appointees) barely make up a quorum. And it is unlikely those six would be free of conflicts of interest or scheduling problems, either of which could interfere with formal proceedings against a judge.
"It's fraught with practical problems. It's not so much we couldn't do it. It's a reality check," Steven Stewart, executive director of the conduct commission, said Friday.
Lewis had a brush with the conduct commission in 1996 when Associated Press reporter Mike Carter filed a complaint against her after she threatened to hold him in contempt for questioning her about a ruling. While Carter's complaint was dismissed, the investigation into it led to an admonishment of Lewis for an inappropriate contact with a defense attorney in a murder case she was hearing.
More recently, the conduct commission has been looking at another run-in between a reporter and Lewis over a controversial sentence she handed down in July involving child molester Steven Flandro, sources said.
Flandro, a two-time convicted sex offender, faced up to 15 years in prison for molesting two young girls. Lewis imposed probation and a one-year jail sentence.
KUTV reporter Kerry Birmingham asked Lewis' clerk for a transcript or videotape of the proceeding. Instead, according to sources, she received a bizarre and menacing call from Lewis, who at first refused to provide the materials, then allegedly threatened Birmingham with arrest.
Ultimately, Lewis made the videotape available to the reporter.
Birmingham said Friday she does not plan to complain to the conduct commission and will not cooperate in any investigation into the incident. Her news director, Pat Costello, said the station wants to report news, not make it.
The commission also is interested in Lewis' relationship with suspected drug prescription forger Gregory Gary Totland, who used her as a reference when he was released from jail in late April, sources said. The Salt Lake Tribune reported May 2 that Totland joined Lewis in New Orleans after his release.
Any effort to impeach Lewis, if it comes to that, would be difficult, time-consuming and possibly politically explosive. The state founders intentionally made it difficult for one branch of government to remove an official from another branch, said legislative researcher Gerry Howe, who is researching the issue for the Interim Judiciary Committee.
The state Constitution requires a trial in the Senate and a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate to impeach for "high crimes and misdemeanors or malfeasance in office."
Nobody has ever been impeached in Utah, so there is no precedence to follow, Howe said. "Right now, I have no idea how it's going to proceed," he said. "We've never been here before."
Tyler said the Interim Judiciary Committee will discuss the issue at its next meeting on Oct. 21, along with possible remedies for reconstituting the Judicial Conduct Commission in light of the Supreme Court's decision.
"The Legislature has to be able to deal with these situations involving judges who aren't doing what they're supposed to," Tyler said. "One thing we can do is start impeaching."
Tyler stressed Friday that it's premature to say the legislative committee will do anything.
"It's not something we're talking lightly about," he said. "It's an extremely serious matter."