BOSTON — A Massachusetts judge who engaged in sexual acts with a social worker in his courthouse chambers will be suspended indefinitely, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday, setting in motion the judge’s possible removal from the bench.
The Supreme Judicial Court said Judge Thomas Estes’ “grave, willful and repeated wrongdoing” has damaged the public’s faith in the judicial system.
“The sanction we impose is not severe because we seek to punish the judge severely, but because … we seriously question whether he can command the respect and authority essential to the performance of his judicial function,” the judges wrote.
Estes’ lawyer, David Hoose, said they are disappointed in the decision and that Estes is weighing his options.
Tammy Cagle, who worked on the drug court where Estes sat, has accused him in a federal lawsuit of pressuring her into performing oral sex on him and then pushing her out of the drug court when she tried to end the relationship.
Estes says their relationship was consensual and denies harassing Cagle or playing in a role in her losing her job. He says that Cagle initiated their first encounter and was the one who wanted to continue their relationship.
Estes’ lawyer had urged the court for a four-month suspension, saying he has already suffered immensely from the affair becoming public. Estes’ lawyer told the justices in April that Estes’ relationship with Cagle never impacted his judicial duties and shouldn’t cause him to lose his career.
Cagle’s lawyer applauded the court’s decision.
“My client is gratified that the SJC has recognized that no matter how powerful you are, you cannot abuse the public trust,” Attorney Lenny Kesten said.
The Supreme Judicial Court said Estes will be suspended without pay indefinitely effective June 15. While the decision prevents Estes from working as a judge, only the governor and lawmakers can officially remove him from the bench.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters Thursday that Estes “shouldn’t be behind the bench” and called the indefinite suspension and censure a “pretty good start.”
Lawmakers could either impeach Estes or issue a “bill of address” calling for his removal. Baker and the Governor’s Council would both have to sign off on a bill of address to strip Estes from the bench.
It’s only the fourth time the state’s high court has imposed such a sanction on a judge. The last time a Massachusetts judge was removed through a bill of address was Judge Jerome Troy, of the Dorchester District Court, in 1973.
Estes, a former public defender, was nominated by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014. He was the first justice of the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown before he was confined to administrative duties last year.
He also came under fire in 2016 when he sentenced a former high school athlete to probation after the athlete pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two classmates. The case drew parallels to that of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who got just six months in jail for a sexual assault conviction.