Sentinel Staff Writer
June 2, 2007
An Orlando circuit judge made unwanted sexual advances toward a law-school student and abused people who faced him in court, according to formal charges filed by a state investigative agency Friday.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission accused James C. Hauser, 58, of making the advances toward a 33-year-old, married student in a class he co-taught at Barry University's law school in early 2006 and phoning her numerous times after she asked him to leave her alone.
It also cited him for "erratic and abusive behavior" on the bench that led several attorneys to complain to Chief Judge Belvin Perry, who documented the complaints in a Feb.14, 2005, memo to Hauser while he was a family-court judge.
Hauser has been on paid administrative leave since the allegations surfaced 6 1/2 months ago.
The JQC charges Hauser with breaching the code of conduct regarding judicial integrity, dignity dealing with litigants and lawyers, permitting private communications with parties in cases, and conduct outside the courtroom which demeaned his office. Hauser and his attorney have 20 days to respond to the charges.
JQC Special Counsel Lauri Waldman Ross and Executive Director Brooke Kennerly would not comment on the charges. Under Florida law, the probe was secret but now will become public as the case is heard by the commission's six-member panel -- two judges, two lawyers and two citizens.
If the panel upholds any of the charges, it will recommend disciplinary action to the Florida Supreme Court, which has final say in the matter. Hauser faces a variety of possible punishments, including fines and a reprimand, suspension, removal from the bench or action against his lawyer license.
In the memo released Friday by the JQC, Perry warned Hauser about expressing personal opinions on the bench and allowing personal biases to affect rulings; being disrespectful to attorneys; having private communications with attorneys and expert witnesses; and encouraging litigants to seek counseling regardless of need.
Perry wrote that fellow judges said he had been acting inappropriately for years.
"Jim, as we have previously discussed, the items mentioned above are not acceptable, and your conduct must change," Perry wrote, threatening to reassign Hauser to another division if his behavior did not change.
Attorney Keith Mitnik of Orlando said Hauser was disappointed that the JQC charges were filed. But Mitnik said he can defend his client and cross-examine witnesses now that the secret probe is public.
"This is a very difficult ordeal for him, but he is confident the path will be cleared, these matters will be soon behind him, and he will continue serving the people as a judge," Mitnik said.
In an interview in January, Hauser admitted to the Orlando Sentinel that he had made some mistakes on the family-court bench but said his efforts to reduce the hostility between attorneys and their clients and children in divorce cases had angered some lawyers.
Hauser also was adamant that he did not commit any sex crimes with the married student. An Orange County Sheriff's Office investigation of him for attempted sexual battery with the student was closed earlier this year without charges, partly because the woman did not cooperate with authorities and didn't want to press charges.
Hauser admitted consensual, amorous contact with the woman and called it an "error" in judgment but said he passed a private polygraph test and a Sheriff's Office voice-stress test in which he denied any sexual crimes.
"Now that there is a formal charge, he can defend himself," Mitnik said. "And now I can question the lady . . . for Judge Hauser so we can get to the truth of the matter."
Mitnik said Hauser was never told by the woman not to contact her but said he stopped after she did not return phone calls. Another professor warned Hauser that the student was rude and combative in class, records show.
The woman alleged in a transcribed interview Nov. 16 with Perry that she and Hauser went to dinner, then to her apartment to pick up a movie. She said Hauser exposed himself, pushed her onto her bed and tried to sexually assault her as she fended him off. Her identity is being withheld by the Sentinel because of the sexual nature of the accusations.
Hauser has been on paid leave from his $145,080-a-year job since mid-November, immediately after Orange Circuit Judge Robert Evans, also an instructor at Barry, told Perry about the woman's allegations, according to a transcript provided to deputies. Perry then questioned the woman and apparently informed the JQC.
The investigation followed the filing of a domestic-violence petition a few weeks earlier by Hauser's estranged wife, Patti, who said she felt threatened. She later dropped the petition, and the couple is in the midst of a divorce.
Perry would not comment on the charges or say why Hauser has not been assigned to a court division this year. Hauser will continue to be paid, he said.
"I think it speaks for itself," Perry said. "Until this matter is resolved, he will remain unassigned."
Jim Leusner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5411.