Legal Ethics

Judge repeatedly mistreated women, had 'propensity to remove his pants in chambers,' report says

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Disciplinary charges filed Monday accuse a Rhode Island judge of mistreating female staff, attorneys and the public, as well as other behavior that cast doubt on his fitness to serve on the bench.

A report (PDF) by the Commission on Judicial Tenure & Discipline says District Judge Rafael Ovalles treated women differently than men, made improper and patronizing comments, once threw a file at a clerk and berated a public defender in court, imposing special rules and even requiring her to remain seated, the Providence Journal reports.

He also sexually harassed a female clerk, who said she twice delivered a file to Ovalles in his chambers as he had his fly unzipped and his hand in his underwear, the report alleges. It says the judge had a “propensity to remove his pants in chambers” and characterizes this alleged behavior as both harassing and lacking in professional dignity.

Female court staff often recruited sheriffs and male clerks to accompany them to see Ovalles, the report notes.

“Respondent also abused staff, litigants and the public by routinely and frequently leaving the bench on a whim,” the report says. “These absences occurred without notice and typically happened when respondent became overwhelmed or upset with attorneys, litigants, court personnel or a particular case. Respondent’s absence may or may not have been prefaced by an announcement that the court would be taking a recess. The duration of these absences would vary depending on his mood, leaving litigants, personnel and the public sitting and wondering when court would resume.”

Other issues included napping on his desk in chambers and asking court personnel to provide wake-up calls so he wouldn’t miss scheduled court proceedings, the commission says.

It gave Ovalles 20 days to respond to charges that he violated multiple legal ethics rules and set a Feb. 6 hearing date.

The Providence Journal article doesn’t include any comment from Ovalles, who is around 50 years old and earns over $150,000 annually, according to an earlier WJAR story. It says the station tried without success to reach Ovalles—who had been on the district court bench since 2005—in advance of the April story.

A call Tuesday afternoon by the ABA Journal to Ovalles’ listed number in a court directory was answered by a general recording. A woman answering the phone for the court said it was not possible to leave a message for Ovalles because he is not there.

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