How Does A Federal Judge Defend Himself? (Update)

When word spread like wildfire that United States District Court Judge Mark Fuller of the Middle District of Alabama was a wife-beater, and then pleaded guilty (Edit: this is wrong, see update below)  to it, the only question left was whether he would skulk out of the courthouse on his accord or have to be dragged out kicking and screaming.

As an Article III judge, Fuller had life tenure in the position, subject to good behavior.  Wife beating certainly isn’t good behavior, but it would require impeachment by the Senate to remove him from office. And bad though it seemed, it wasn’t something he did on the bench, though his judicial career had its share of controversy.

The Alabama judge was criticized for sitting on cases brought by the government even as his aviation company was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded business. Appointed by a Republican, he was denounced for putting a former Democratic governor in manacles after a corruption conviction.

He was the talk of the courthouse for having an extramarital affair with his courtroom assistant, and for his messy public divorce.

But these weren’t the reasons for the calls for his resignation. Or worse. It was the wife-beating, especially with the Ray Rice wife-beating scandal breaking right on top of it, generating a national cry for men to stop beating their wives.

Adding to Fuller’s problems was that a few weeks after he was arrested, video was released of NFL star running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancee unconscious, putting a national spotlight on spousal abuse. The Baltimore Ravens dropped Rice.

“If an NFL player can lose his job because of domestic violence, then a federal judge should definitely not be allowed to keep his lifetime appointment to the federal bench,” said Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.).

Indeed, would it be too much to ask that those who sit on the big bench behave themselves?  How exactly do they pull off the moral suasion needed to harangue a defendant at sentence when everyone in the room ponders whether they may share a cell some day?

Yet, appearing before the five judge panel reviewing his situation, questions are raised that weren’t before.  His ex-wife’s side was pretty clear:

“He’s beating on me! Please help me,” Kelli Fuller pleaded to a police dispatcher, who called for an ambulance and could be heard telling a co-worker, “I can hear him hitting her now.”

The policeman who entered the hotel room found her with “visible lacerations to her mouth and forehead” and said the room smelled of alcohol.

“Mrs. Fuller stated when she confronted him about their issues, he pulled her hair and threw her to the ground and kicked her,” the police report said. “Mrs. Fuller also stated she was dragged around the room and Mr. Fuller hit her in the mouth several times with his hands.”

Terrifying stuff by anyone, but especially by a federal judge.  And since Fuller chose not to fight the charge, taking diversion, that’s as far as the narrative went.  But now, Judge Fuller is fighting for his bench, and he’s offering a different view:

Fuller’s lawyer and longtime friend Barry Ragsdale spoke at length about the incident for the first time.

Ragsdale said Kelli Fuller had become upset over an “imagined” affair she believed her husband of two years was having with a law clerk.

Ragsdale said Fuller acted in self-defense. He said when Fuller refused to fire the law clerk, his wife “throws a glass at him and rushes at him while he is lying in bed” in his underwear watching television.

“He reaches up, defending himself, and grabs her by the hair and the shoulder,” Ragsdale said. “Standing up, he throws her on the bed. She rolls off onto the floor and got a bloody lip. He never intended to hurt her.”

Which side is true isn’t the point; Fuller copped a plea, which makes him guilty regardless of what he has to say about it afterward, and even so, this is just his position in defense of what happened. It doesn’t make it true.

But this raises a spectre.  What if, just “if,” Fuller’s story is true?  The knee-jerk reaction is that if he was innocent of domestic abuse, he should have refused the plea and fought the charge.  He should have gone to trial, taken the stand and told his story.  No matter how sweet the plea, he should have taken a stand for the truth, if truth it was.

And yet, the factors at play here suggest that a lengthy prosecution resulting in a nasty public airing of what happened in that room, with his ex-wife telling a teary-eyed story of being beaten and the judge stoically explaining that it didn’t happen that way, may not have been a “smart” move.

First, he could have lost, which would have only made his situation worse.  And, being a judge and all, he must know that he could have lost, innocence notwithstanding.  This is particularly true given the atmosphere at the time, with the stink of Ray Rice’s wife-beating in the air and the sentiment of the nation strongly against believing an accused wife-beater.

Second, even if he was acquitted, it wouldn’t “prove” he was innocent, as trials aren’t designed to do that. The taint of being a wife-beater would remain, and the words and images they conjured would hang over his head for the rest of his career.

Third, at the very best, it would have been a horribly unseemly show that would bring him and the judiciary into disrepute.  After all, he’s a federal judge, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. If he’s a low-life wife-beater, what does that say of the sort of people who sit on the big bench?  Are they all Sam Kents?

It might have seemed best, in the exercise of discretion, to cop out of the easy plea and make his stand before his own kind, after the noise died down and the barometric pressure was a bit lower.  This may have been his attempt at crisis management, giving up his plea in the hope of saving his career, because there was no good option to fight the charges that wouldn’t have added fuel to the fire of domestic violence charges.

The point is that when you’re in a position like Fuller, and accused of something as banal and disgusting as beating your wife, the options suck.  There really isn’t a good way to maintain one’s innocence and fight the charges in a trial that is guaranteed to be a pissing match without getting soaked. Maybe Fuller realized this and picked his moment. Or maybe he’s just guilty as sin.

Update:  I received an email from Alabama attorney Barry Ragsdale correcting my mistake in writing that Judge Fuller pleaded guilty:

Just for the sake of clarity, Judge Fuller did not plead guilty or otherwise “cop a plea.”  To the contrary, there was no admission of guilt and no confession to the misdemeanor battery charge. Instead, in order to spare his then-wife and himself from a public airing of their private marital dispute, Judge Fuller accepted the offer of pre-trial diversion which did not involve anything like a plea bargain. May seem nuanced to you, but if you are going to condemn the Judge for “pleading guilty” you should know that no such guilty plea has ever been made and that the Judge has always disputed the version of events widely reported.  For the record, the actual evidence (including the police photographs) presented to the Special Committee vindicated Judge Fuller’s account of what transpired that night.

My writing he copped out was clearly in error, and I appreciate being corrected. This is not just a detail, but a very substantial factual mistake on my part.


10 thoughts on “How Does A Federal Judge Defend Himself? (Update)

  1. jill mcmahon

    Innocent or not, it sounds like he got some, hopefully valuable, experience about what it’s like on the other side of the bench.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Damn, tell me more…

    Pre trial diversion sounds like a pretty smooth ride and an excellent opportunity to brush up on the usually assigned subject matter such as anger management, mutant ninja turtle defensive awareness techniques, advanced alcohol/ drug awareness rhetoric, etc., etc.

    Heck, I bet there is even plenty of time left over after classes to go back and re-read some of the great romantic classics.

    BTW, do you have to have good teeth and parents that never ingested a schedule one drug for the PTD program? And what classes did Fuller get or was he just told to stay away from the female and go to church every Sunday for a few months?

    Anyway, back to your point, will he be able to apply the lessoned learned? Isn’t that sort of like asking if presidents and senators learn anything from their constituents during the primary’s or if primary elections are merely an acid test to see who’s best at distorting reality.

    It all depends, it all depends…

    I’m not holding out too much hope but I reckon this whole “ride” may give Fuller pause in the future to consider what could have been if he ran into an unsympathetic prosecutor. But then again if he is innocent it might just reinforce his belief that prosecutors would never really, really, really stick it too someone who didn’t really have it coming to them and the rest is just politics and sound criminal defense advise.

    P.S. You trying to spook that black robed rider from Nebraska out of the badlands with this post? He took quite a bit of interest in Fuller back when the cow-dung was being blown about by prairie twisters.

    You should poke him with one of them there email sticks and see what he thinks now, just in case he is taking a nap.

  3. Not Jim Ardis

    but if you are going to condemn the Judge

    Funny, I thought Scott was exceedingly careful to not condemn the judge…

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