On Saturday night, police responded to a domestic violence incident at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlanta. What they found was a sitting federal judge, Judge Mark Fuller of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, and Fuller’s wife, who said that her husband had assaulted her. Judge Fuller was arrested on misdemeanor battery charges. On Monday, he was granted a $5,000 bond on Monday and ordered to return to Atlanta on August 22 for a hearing on the charges against him.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this is not the first time Fuller has faced domestic violence allegations. Rather, “[a]n Alabama newspaper reported in 2012 that records filed in Fuller’s then-pending divorce included allegations of domestic violence, drug abuse and an affair with a court bailiff.”
Fuller, a George W. Bush appointee to the federal bench, is best known for presiding over the bribery trial of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D) in 2006. Fuller was criticized for not recusing himself from the Siegelman case due to his background in Republican politics and his financial dealings with the Bush Administration. Prior to joining the bench, Fuller was a member of the Alabama Republican Executive Committee during a time when Siegelman was a Democratic elected official. Fuller claimed that an investigation led by a Siegelman appointee of some payments Fuller made while he served as a district attorney was “politically motivated,” and he earned most of his income from a business that contracted with the Justice Department at the very same time that DOJ was prosecuting Siegelman.
According to Georgetown University legal ethicist David Luban, this combination of “past political activism against the governor, a possible grudge against the governor, and the judge’s company’s financial dependence on the government’s good graces” suggest that Fuller would need “superhuman self-control” in order to remain impartial — and thus Fuller should have recused himself from the case.
If Fuller is convicted of the domestic violence charges against him, the only way to remove him from the bench absent his voluntary decision to step down is through impeachment. Although Fuller was only charged with a misdemeanor, Congress has broad discretion to remove a federal official for less-than-felonious offenses. The Constitution provides that “[t]he President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
While only a handful of judges were removed from office through the impeachment process, a couple of these cases also suggest that Congress has a great deal of leeway to determine what constitutes an impeachable offense. In 1804, for example, Congress removed Judge John Pickering from office largely based on charges that he was an alcoholic and insane. More recently, in 1989, Judge Alcee Hastings (now a member of Congress) was removed from office in part due to bribery charges, despite the fact that he had been acquitted in a criminal trial raising similar allegations.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit just announced that “Effective immediately, all legal matters filed with the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama that are pending before Judge Fuller will be reassigned to other judges in accordance with standard procedures for the assignment of cases. No new legal matters will be assigned to Judge Fuller until further notice.”