Judge Mark Somers, a state trial judge in Dearborn, Michigan, sent official correspondence to a potential juror on letterhead containing a Biblical passage, according to a former court employee. The clerk of the court complained that Somers was “literally preaching from the bench” at times. The court’s deputy administrator, a woman named Julie Pucci, complained to an agency that oversees the state’s judiciary about the Biblical letterhead. Some time later, after Somers was promoted to chief judge of the court, he fired Pucci.
Based on these facts, a federal jury awarded Pucci over $730,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The federal trial court that heard this case determined, among other things, that Somers violated Pucci’s First Amendment rights when he fired her in retaliation for complaining about his conduct on the bench.
On Friday, a federal appeals court upheld this decision. As the appeals court explained, Pucci “had a strong interest—as a citizen—in alerting the [state agency] to Somers’s conduct on the bench, which ‘implicates the propriety and legality of public, in-court judicial conduct.” This interest trumped any interest Somers may have had in removing a court employee that he had tense relations with.
Judge Somers was recently reelected to a six-year term on the court where he serves by a narrow margin of only 85 votes. Dearborn’s mayor, Jack O’Reilly, supported Somers’s opponent due to concerns that the city “could not afford” to pay for lawsuits brought against Somers.
(HT: Howard Friedman)