I don’t think this is a matter that’s going to lightly go away,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican. “I think it evidenced the lack of a proper understanding of your role in the matter.”
Sessions was speaking directly to Judge Robert Chatigny, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill a vacancy on the 2nd Circuit that opened when Judge Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chatigny was recommended for the appointment by Connecticut’s two U.S. Senators, Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman.
The questions and remarks make by committee members were withering.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said Chatigny had done “everything possible to prevent the execution. I just wonder why you think your behavior in this case — which is pretty extraordinary — why that behavior would warrant a promotion to a much more senior court.”
Chatigny is best remembered in Connecticut – but apparently not by the state’s two U.S. senators -- as the judge who delayed mass murderer Michael Ross’ execution by threatening to pull the license of his lawyer, the hapless T.R. Pauling.
Ross raped and murdered his victims, leaving their bodies strewn all over the state. He was caught by some alert detectives shortly after he had worked his way through his seventh and eighth victims, two 14 year-old girls Ross picked up on the road on Easter Sunday. He raped and strangled one of the girls while the other watched terrified in the car; then he strangled the second girl, ditching her body behind a fieldstone wall.
The case moved slowly through Connecticut’s judicial carousel– capital felony trial, conviction, penalty phase trial, conviction, endless appeals stretching over a course of a dozen years – until Ross decided to give up any future appeals and end the business. Ross said he wished to spare the families of his victims the pain associated with the frustration of justice.
Enter Judge Chatigny. On the eve of Ross’ execution, Chatigny made a teleconferencing call that included Ross’ lawyer and those associated with Ross’ defense. The judge threatened to pull the law license of Ross’ lawyer, who was under instructions from Ross not to pursue future appeals, unless he were to countermand the decision of his client and permit one more hearing.
Two days before Chatigny threw a monkey wrench into serial killer Michael Ross’ impending execution, he was asked by Assistant Attorney General Terrence O’Neill, “Does your honor hold any personally held beliefs or has your honor written in any other cases that we just haven’t been able to find yet that would cause us to question your partiality with respect to the implementation or execution of a death sentence?”
Chatigny answered, “I have no moral beliefs or other types of beliefs that would stand in the way of implementing a death penalty in the circumstances where the law called for it to be done. So, yeah; you'll not find anything that suggests anything to the contrary. I feel fortunate to be in a situation to be able to address these issues without having to deal with a client, the public, the media, a boss or anything other than my own conscience."
Apparently, the judge’s conscience had failed to remind him of his previous involvement in the Ross case.
Acting on behalf of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, Chatigny had submitted in 1992 a three page application with the State Supreme Court seeking permission to file a friend of the court brief in the Ross case. Permission was granted, but no record of a brief has been found.
The association he represented, Chatigny had written in the application, "is gravely concerned about the trial court's rulings on significant evidentiary issues in this case.” In his teleconference, Chatigny clung to the same view, despite the authoritative judgments of appellate courts – including a state Supreme Court and a U.S. Supreme Court -- that Ross was competent to decide whether or not he should forgo further appeals.
Could the judge’s previous memory lapse in the Ross case have slipped his mind?
Not likely, according to House Minority Leader Robert Ward who, along with other Republicans, filed a complaint against Chatigny with the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.
“I can understand a lawyer not remembering the details of a case he was involved in ten or twelve years ago, but there aren’t many Michael Ross cases. His name is on the petition to the State Supreme Court. He clearly had an agenda in this case.”
And since Chatigny previously had participated in the Ross case as a litigant – indeed, he was the sole signatory to the application seeking permission from the State Supreme Court to enter the case as a friend of the court -- Ward said it was “a clear ethical violation for a judge not to disclose his prior involvement in this case.”
Even our ubiquitous attorney general weighed in on the judge’s mishandling of the Ross case: “I have strong reservations about Judge Chatigny’s actions during the conference he conducted in the Michael Ross case. The Judicial Council of the Second Circuit will determine whether these actions were proper and ethical. My office has no role in that process. We have filed no formal complaint against the judge. No provision of state or federal law allows my office to recover costs from a judge found to have acted improperly or unethically.”
The Judicial Council swatted the judge with a butterfly wing, and now Chatigny has been exposed to the same kind of treatment he meted out to Pauling days before Ross was scheduled to be executed. Ross was sorely disappointed with the judge’s intervention at the time. Both Ross and the judge now have been given their due.
Call it – Ross’ revenge.