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Court suspends 17th Circuit Judge Hawkins

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Accepting a recommendation from the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the Supreme Court has suspended without pay 17th Circuit Judge Vegina T. Hawkins over an allegation she placed her hands around the throat of a court employee.

The two-paragraph order came on July 19, the day after the JQC Investigative Panel filed its recommendation and Hawkins’ attorney, J. David Bogenschutz, filed a reply saying there was insufficient evidence to merit the suspension while the JQC conducts a trial on the issue.

The court also released a short security camera video showing Judge Hawkins with the employee in a hallway where she appeared to briefly place her hands around the employee’s neck.

After a meeting with 17th Circuit Chief Judge Jack Tuter, Judge Hawkins self-reported the June 11 incident to the JQC on June 26. In the letter, she called her action a “joking gesture” and said she believed she had not touched him during a discussion about getting necessary paperwork she needed for her court session. She also said the conversation was not heated, merely informational.

The JQC Investigative Panel, in making its suspension recommendation, said Judge Hawkins’ version was contradicted by the video, the affected employee, and others.

“The employee involved did not describe the judge’s demeanor that morning as friendly or joking, but described her as ‘extremely upset.’ Another employee who interacted with Judge Hawkins shortly after the incident says Judge Hawkins remarked about the encounter and demonstrated what she did by making a choking motion in the air. This employee described Judge Hawkins’ overall behavior as ‘unnecessarily unprofessional and unpredictable,’” the Investigative Panel said in its report to the court.

The report also said when the panel questioned Judge Hawkins and reviewed the video with her, she admitted to touching and shaking the employee and attributed her earlier statement to crying, uncertainty about whether she had actually touched the employee, and the graininess of the video when she watched it in Tuter’s office.

The panel did not find credible Judge Hawkins’ testimony that she was calm and not upset. In recommending suspension without pay, it concluded: “Within the judicial branch, as in civilian life, it is never appropriate for a person in a supervisory position to put their hands around the neck of an employee or subordinate and shake them. It is all the more inappropriate, and potentially criminal, when such conduct is motivated by anger, or to emphasize displeasure.”

Bogenschutz argued the judge showed remorse about the incident and in addition to self-reporting, fully cooperated with the JQC Investigative Panel. He also argued that the conduct did not meet the requirements of JQC Rule 8 for the temporary suspension of a judge. Those standards include the seriousness of the alleged misconduct, its effect on public confidence in the court system, the responsiveness of the judge to the JQC, and whether the conduct reflects on the judge’s fitness to serve.

“There has been no suggestion that this judge did anything that would warrant or merit the draconian response to this several seconds-long incident with a suspension without pay under Rule 8 or under any fair reading of the proceedings to date. She has an unblemished career as a prosecutor and private practitioner, as well as a police officer. She has been a circuit court judge, at the time of this incident, for approximately six months, beginning what, for all intents and purposes, appears to be an outstanding career on the circuit court of the 17th Judicial Circuit,” Bogenschutz argued.

The case now goes to the JQC Hearing Panel for a final recommendation to the Supreme Court.

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