A three-day hearing before the state’s Judicial Standards Commission is set to begin this week to determine whether a Libby judge harassed the women in his courtroom and offered them lighter punishments in exchange for sexual favors.
Adding to the hearing’s tension are the preceding weeks of legal wrangling as a result of Lincoln County’s refusal to pay the attorney fees of Gary D. Hicks, the justice of the peace accused of the misconduct. Had a district judge not ordered Lincoln County to pay for Hicks’ legal defense last week, he would have faced the hearing with no lawyer at all.
The case itself has Libby residents buzzing as nine named women and five “Jane Does” have come forward complaining that Hicks made vulgar remarks to them when they were defendants in his court. Hicks is a two-term justice of the peace based in Libby who was first elected six years ago.
In the complaint against Hicks filed by Kalispell prosecuting attorney Stephen C. Berg, the women allege that as far back as 2005, Hicks complimented the women’s appearances when they showed up in his court on legal matters, asked them out on dates and offered to dismiss or “work with” the women on the charges against them in exchange for sexual contact.
In the case of one woman before the court on a drunken driving charge, according to the complaint, Hicks said she was “too pretty to be in trouble” and asked her if she would like to “screw a fat old judge.” After this encounter Hicks drove to the woman’s trailer park several times to see if she was available “for sexual contact,” according to the complaint.
Another woman alleged that Hicks asked to begin a relationship with her when she appeared before him in court, and he later visited her home unannounced to tell her “that his ‘offer’ was still in effect.”
Hicks’ attorney, Tammi Fisher of Kalispell, disputes the charges against him and said the judge passed a lie detector test affirming his innocence. Fisher said she has several witnesses, including investigators and statistical experts who will testify to Hicks’ innocence.
“I think he has a strong defense,” Fisher said. “The experts establish the defense.”
Hicks is not being brought up on criminal charges. Because he is a judge, the Montana Judicial Standards Commission will hear the case, and make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which has ultimate authority over Montana’s judges.
Depending on the recommendation from the commission, the Supreme Court could remove Hicks from office as a result of the charges, according to Berg, who emphasized that the hearing is not a trial. Hearings before the Judicial Standards Commission are rare, and best characterized as an administrative action within the area of civil law, Berg said. The jury in this hearing will be made up of members of the Judicial Standards Commission.
But should Hicks be removed from his office as a result of the complaints, there is a good chance civil charges could be filed against him as well. According to attorney Sean Goicoechea, that’s a big concern for Lincoln County, which could now be on the hook to pay for the defense of Hicks in any upcoming legal action, and could be responsible for paying damages awarded to any of the women in the complaints, should they successfully sue Hicks.
Goicoechea is representing Lincoln County in its position that it is not responsible for paying for the legal defense of Hicks. State law mandates that municipalities and other governments must provide for the legal defense of their employees, but Goicoechea said that because many of the complaints against Hicks allege that he did things outside of his job as judge, like visiting some women’s homes, Lincoln County is not responsible.
“Those are not things that are within the course and scope of his employment as a judge,” Goicoechea said. “It’s a hard line to draw, which is truthfully why we have asked for a hearing to sort this out.”
“Lincoln County does not want to just willy-nilly spend the taxpayer dollars because none of this has been covered by insurance,” he added. “The county will pay if it’s required legally to do so.”
Lincoln County’s refusal to cover the defense of Hicks forced Fisher to withdraw as his attorney, since he had no way of paying her fees. Because Hicks had no attorney, Fisher asked the state Supreme Court to postpone his hearing on the sexual harassment charges, and requested a district court ruling on Lincoln County’s responsibility to pay for the defense of Hicks.
According to Fisher’s July 2 filing with Lincoln County District court, her fees and expenses so far totaled $9,687. Hicks’ annual salary, according to that same filing, is $36,000.
“Lincoln County’s basically hanging its employee out to dry,” Fisher said and last week questioned whether there were political motives behind the county’s refusal to pay for Hicks’ defense, noting that his wife ran for Republican office in the county, while two Lincoln County commissioners are Democrats.
“I think there is a political undercurrent to this, certainly,” Fisher said. “Political motivations may be underlying all this.”
Goicoechea called any notion of political motivation behind Lincoln County’s unwillingness to pay for Hicks’ defense “absolutely untrue.”
The state Supreme Court refused to postpone the hearing, but on Aug. 13 District Judge Katherine Curtis ruled that Lincoln County must pay Hicks’ legal defense fees. Fisher is now back on the case, defending Hicks this week, and, as of last week, Goicoechea said Lincoln County had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling by Curtis.
As for the original Hicks hearing, county authorities are expecting a large crowd.
“It’s one of those things where everybody is waiting to see what happens,” said Libby Mayor Anthony Berget. “He deserves a day in court like anybody else.”
But based on the hearing’s outcome, the stage is clearly set for more legal action down the road.
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