In a unprecedented censure of a sitting jurist, the Justice Department yesterday asked a federal appeals court to forever bar a U.S. District Court chief judge in Utah from hearing cases involving the government in any way.
The judge, Willis W. Ritter of Salt Lake City, has amassed a record of bizarre judical behavior that has "destroyed public confidence in (his) ability to administer justice," the Justice Department declared in a voluminious pleading to strip Ritter of most of his duties.
Ritter's behavior ranged from locking up 25 postal workers because the creaking elevator they were riding disturbed his courtroom, to creating traffic chaos in Salt City by issuing a 10-day restraining order prohibiting police from writing traffic tickets, according to supporting documents accompanying the pleading.
Ritter was accused of mismanaging his criminal calendar in a way that made a fiasco of the court, denying defendants the right to a speedy trial and displaying contempt toward U.S. attorneys and higher-level judges.
His courtroom demeanor, the government argued, "exceeds his authority and brings the federal court in disrespect."
Ritter also was accused of disregarding the federal rules of criminal procedure and of conducting cases in a manner designed to avoid reversal on appeal.
Yet, according to his own accounting in an affidavit filed in a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, 58 per cent of the civil cases Ritter has heard since 1949 have been reversed. In criminal cases, the reversal rate was even higher, he said.
Willis could not be reached yesterday. His office said he had no comment on the petition.
The extraordinary petition by the Justice Department, made to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, is the culmination of nearly three decades of controversy surrounding Ritter since his appointment by President Harry S. Truman.
The controversy led to Senate hearings last year to repeal the so-called grandfather clause exempting existing chief judges of small districts from the statute which prohibits service beyond the age of 70. Ritter is 77.
Ritter's courtroom history has also figures prominently in congressional attempts to get rid of errant or impaired federal judges, short of the laborious process of impeachment. No federal judge has been impeached in 40 years, and only four have have been forcibly removed in U.S. judcial history.
In the hearings, Ritter was described by Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) as a "disgrace to the federal judiciary." Garn testified he had received on the average one complaint a week about Ritter, including an allegation that judge startled the courtroom with prolonged hissing noises during a lawyer's argument.
The Justice Department request to remove Ritter from all pending federal criminal cases and bar him from hearing any further civil cases involving the U.S. government, was made in the form of a petition for a writ of mandamus, which is an order from one court to a lesser one.
The petition was signed by U.S. Attorney Ramon Child of Salt Lake City and U.S. Solicitor General Wade McCree, and is unprecedented in judicial history, a Justice spokesman said.
If approved, the writ would relieve Ritter of as much as half of his case-load, leaving him only with civil proceedings in which the U.S. government is not involved.
The government's petition was made to the same circuit court with which Ritter has been feuding for years, and the one which has reversed a majority of his decisions.
The most recent reversal of wide-spread public attention came last January when Ritter issued a stay of execution for killer Gary Mark Gilmore seven hours before Gilmore was to face a firing squad. The Denver court canceled the stay and dismissed Ritter's notion that there was "too much uncertainty in the law" to proceed with the execution.
In his 27 years on the federal bench, Ritter developed a reputation as a cantankerous and unpredictable jurist, an image that was not dampened as a result of his frequent feuds with the press.
His 1973 ban on editorial sketches in his courtroom and his prohibition against photographers and artists from even entering the court house led to a short-lived First Amendment confrontation.
In 1969, he considered 69 habeas corpus and civil rights cases filed by enmates of Utah State Prison, and reportedly turned the second floor of the courthouse into an armed camp as the heavily guarded convicts were brought into the court en masse.