Posted Jul 31, 2012 10:12 pm CDT
A former North Carolina judge tearfully took a misdemeanor plea Monday in a controversial case involving altered conviction dates in drunk-driving cases heard before other judges.
Kristin Ruth, 55, said she had been too trusting of a defense attorney she has known since they were classmates at Campbell University’s law school, reports the Charlotte Observer. James Crouch and his paralegal, she said, slipped orders that changed conviction dates into stacks of legitimate orders and she signed them without fully reading them.
A courtroom packed with her supporters applauded when Chief Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said the situation had resulted in the loss of a good judge for Wake County. But, as Ruth acknowledged and Stephens also pointed out, she should have known what she was signing.
“Judges are supposed to conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates to everyone that justice does not play favorites,” he said. “If a judge fails in the role as a gatekeeper … the integrity of the court system is completely compromised and the public’s trust in the system is lost.”
The case is controversial because signing nunc pro tunc orders in driving-while-intoxicated cases is a somewhat routine occurrence in Wake County, the article explains. However, authorities say Ruth stepped outside the bounds of common practice by altering other judges’ orders without the agreement of prosecutors. An altered conviction date can reduce penalties, such as the loss of driving privileges, for a DWI defendant.
Critics wonder why the case wasn’t handled as a complaint to judicial ethics authorities, or even simply by clarifying court procedures. Ruth, who is cooperating in an ongoing criminal case against Crouch and the paralegal, isn’t expected to serve any time following her Monday misdemeanor conviction.
Crouch’s lawyer, Joseph B. Cheshire V of Raleigh, was present in the courtroom on Monday. He praised Ruth highly after the hearing and questioned why the case was prosecuted, the newspaper says. However, he also said that his client was publicly criticized without having a chance to respond.
“What we witnessed in that courtroom today was carefully crafted theater,” he said of the hearing.
Crouch declined to comment when contacted by the Observer.
ABAJournal.com: “Former NC Judge, Defense Lawyer and Legal Assistant Indicted re Court’s Handling of DWI Cases”