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Judge subjected staff to insults, outbursts, court investigation finds

Court leaders took the unusual step of making public their findings after Carmen Garza left the bench

The Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse in Albuquerque. Carmen E. Garza, a magistrate judge in New Mexico, was not reappointed by federal judges. (Handout Photo)

Federal judges voted not to reappoint a New Mexico jurist after an internal investigation showed she subjected employees to insults, outbursts and threats of termination, according to a court order published Wednesday.

A court committee that reviewed the allegations said the judge, Carmen E. Garza, created what seemed to be “an abusive and hostile work environment” in her chambers for more than a decade, behavior that included manipulating staff to undermine fellow judges and courthouse employees, and making “derogatory and egregious statements” about colleagues. There was also some evidence, the order states, that Garza “engaged in retaliatory conduct” after the vote against her reappointment.

Her actions, according to Wednesday’s order, led the committee to believe that the judge had “engaged in sanctionable misconduct.”

Garza, a magistrate judge since 2006, left the bench when her term expired in late August before a separate judicial council could act on the complaint. It was remarkable for court leaders to publicize their preliminary findings and to identify the judge by name. In the past, the retirement or departure of a federal judge under scrutiny has cut short similar investigations without any airing of the findings or closure for those who made the allegations.

Garza, 62, denied that she created a hostile work environment, according to the 16-page order, but indicated she was willing to take “appropriate corrective action.” After she was informed of the committee’s preliminary views, the order says Garza decided not to participate in an interview or seek to challenge the allegations.

In a statement, the judge said she had responded to each of the allegations, which “did not constitute a hostile work environment” and “involved incorrect perceptions on the part of the complainants.”

Garza said she tried to resolve the issues “professionally and expeditiously” by seeking mediation. Had she known the committee would make factual findings, Garza said she would have fully participated in the process.

The former judge also disputed any assertion that she retaliated against her staff and said she had no notice from the investigative committee of that specific claim. “It is shocking to me that the judicial system would skip over due process considerations in this cavalier manner,” Garza said, adding that she is “strongly considering a meaningful and thorough appeal of the characterizations.”

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The order from leaders of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit coincides with efforts nationally to revamp the judiciary’s handling of workplace misconduct allegations and provide more options for employees to report harassment, discrimination and other inappropriate behavior.

The judiciary’s 30,000 employees lack the same workplace rights afforded to other government and private-sector workers. Many have said in court surveys and congressional testimony that they are reluctant to bring complaints against such powerful figures with lifetime tenure, mindful the process is overseen by fellow judges. Critics say it’s a flawed system of accountability, one that’s designed to protect those at the top at the expense of lower-level staff.

The 10th Circuit judges said they were making the committee’s findings public in part to identify barriers to reporting misconduct such as employees who told investigators they “lacked confidence in the system and its ability to protect them,” the order states. The vote to not reappoint Garza, it says, was a direct result of the investigation, guidance from the court’s workplace relations director and former employees’ “courage in reporting the alleged misconduct.”

“The most effective way to assuage employees’ fears of retaliation is to demonstrate that the Judiciary’s reporting systems are effective at addressing misconduct,” according to the order from the judicial council, which acknowledged that building confidence in those systems “will take time” and it hopes the “conclusion of this matter will be a step toward developing that trust.”

Wednesday’s order, signed by 10th Circuit Chief Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich, appears to be the first time that court leaders have tried to define and address abusive conduct by a federal judge under changes made in 2019 to expand protections for judiciary employees and specifically prohibit such harassment.

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Those changes came about following allegations of sexual misconduct against former appeals court judge Alex Kozinski. Judiciary leaders, however, have opposed efforts by Congress to do more, saying it would be inappropriate for lawmakers to intervene in the operations of a separate, coequal branch of government.

The 10th Circuit’s decision to publish the preliminary findings was in stark contrast to how the judiciary handled the Kozinski matter. In that case, the committee tasked with investigating the claims of 15 women closed its review after Kozinski retired. At the time, Kozinski apologized, saying he had a “broad sense of humor” and “candid way of speaking” to men and women, and adding that it “grieves me to learn that I caused any of my clerks to feel uncomfortable; this was never my intent.”

When a judge leaves the bench, court leaders no longer have jurisdiction to take any action or impose sanctions. But the 10th Circuit, in Garza’s case, decided to use the investigation’s findings to identify alleged problems and recommend solutions, including more training for judges and court employees. Investigators discovered, for instance, that many of the judges interviewed as part of Garza’s inquiry were unaware of the breadth of alleged misconduct and questioned whether the scant information they had should have triggered their reporting obligations.

Jaime Santos, an appellate attorney who helped found Law Clerks for Workplace Accountability, said Wednesday’s order underscores the importance of continuing to investigate even after a judge resigns or retires, and publicizing the findings.

Failing to do so, Santos said, offers “very little incentive for mistreated employees to come forward and submit a complaint against a judicial officer who wields an enormous amount of power and for whom there are few, if any, realistic tangible repercussions for wrongdoing. Federal judges should not be able to moot misconduct investigations by resigning — and certainly not by retiring with a pension for life paid at taxpayer expense.”

Garza joined the federal bench in New Mexico in 2006 and was elevated to chief magistrate judge in 2018. Magistrate judges conduct preliminary hearings in criminal cases and handle some trials in misdemeanor and civil cases. Unlike Senate-confirmed District Court judges, magistrates are appointed to eight-year terms.

Garza had practiced in Las Cruces and Albuquerque for two decades and was a founding member of the New Mexico Women’s Bar Association. A local newspaper editorial described Garza as hard-working, and the daughter of a former prosecutor and state court judge. She was quoted after the conviction of a client as saying, “I believe in justice; I believe in people’s rights.” At a meeting of the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association in 2015, Garza presented on the topic of “Civility Matters.”

In their joint formal complaint last year, four of Garza’s former employees described a different experience. The filing included the names of nearly a dozen former law clerks and court staff who they said were willing to share their experiences. The chief circuit judge appointed a special committee, made up of five judges, to look into the allegations, and investigators interviewed all of the judge’s former employees and four of fellow judges.

“The damage that this ongoing harassment causes affects not only those who experience or observe it, but harms the integrity of our judicial system as a whole,” wrote one of the former law clerks, who resisted reporting Garza until after finding another job because of concerns about retaliation and future employment.

While the anecdotes may seem “trivial or inconsequential on their own, the overall effect is a hostile workplace,” the clerk wrote. “I believe that this ‘low hum of harassment,’ fostered by consistent insults and degrading comments, runs afoul” of the code of conduct for federal judges.

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In interviews with The Washington Post, three of her former law clerks who also spoke to court investigators described what they said was a pattern of belittling, humiliating remarks. The former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing concerns about their legal careers, agreed to talk about their experience in part to let other court employees know that judiciary leaders took their concerns seriously.

One alleged Garza threatened to take away vacation time, engaged in destructive conversations about other judges and court employees, most often about weight and appearance, and shopped on the internet while presiding over court proceedings.

“She complained that my co-worker was ‘too dumb’ to understand a simple concept. She made comments about a bad haircut, whether my co-clerk came from an affluent family, or what the sexual orientation was of a friend. She asked me if a member of the cleaning crew was ‘retarded.’ She had me draft a letter addressed from her firing my co-clerk,” according to the formal complaint. “Any time I pushed back on her criticisms of others, she questioned my loyalty.”

Each described a toxic, unpredictable environment, with the judge erupting over seeming trivialities such as the spacing of margins in a draft court order or minor typos, and providing hypercritical feedback on writing they said the judge had previously praised.

“She thrived with shifting expectations and criticisms for things I didn’t know were wrong: using a green pen, changing the voice mail password, adding something to her electronic calendar without first removing the setting for a 15-minute reminder notification. Any perceived inconvenience could send her storming in a fit of rage, leaving me questioning whether I lost my job,” the formal complaint says.

The former law clerks said the alleged treatment affected their physical and emotional health. One described vomiting before work due to stress. Another routinely cried in the bathroom. A third sought therapy for help coping with the constant fear of being fired, they said in interviews.

In her statement, Garza said the employees never raised their concerns before filing the formal complaint, which Garza said she has reviewed. As a Hispanic woman, lawyer and judge, she said she has worked to help overcome the “significant obstacles that females and minorities face in the legal profession. I have strived to advance the same on behalf of my clerks over the years.”

She remains “puzzled,” she said, because the former employees “have continued to have relations with me over the years, thanked me for their clerkships, and shared personal details of their lives with me,” Garza said. “I remain at a loss as to how complainants could continue to compliment, then allege what they did.”

Former employees said in interviews that they never considered reporting the judge’s behavior because they were afraid she would ruin their careers.

“It didn’t occur to me that I had protections of any kind,” one said.

Another assumed that court leaders would be dismissive and say, “These clerks are wimps, there’s no abuse of power. I really thought this would just be a complaint in her file,” the former clerk said.

In response to the court’s order, one former clerk who filed a formal complaint praised the committee for its thorough report and said, “I hope this decision illustrates that even when abuse is hidden or hard to articulate, actionable recourse is available.”

Even so, the former clerk added, “I hope that we can move towards a collective recognition that the onus should not fall on law clerks and chambers staff to police the conduct of our federal judiciary.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.