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Court News Ohio

Former Franklin County Judge Suspended for Sexual and Campaign Misconduct

The Ohio Supreme Court today indefinitely suspended former Tenth District Court of Appeals Judge Timothy S. Horton from practicing law, rejecting his claims that he should receive a more lenient sanction for his misconduct.

In a unanimous decision, the Court found Horton of New Albany violated multiple rules governing the conduct of Ohio judges and the rules governing the conduct of Ohio attorneys. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated that Horton’s actions “impaired the public’s faith in an impartial judiciary,” and were particularly harmful to his judicial staff.

“His actions — abusing his staff, allowing his staff to use county time and materials to work on his campaign, filing false campaign-finance reports, and apparently attempting to use his role as a judge, including his previous rulings, to win endorsements and campaign contributions — undermined the public’s faith in the judiciary,” the opinion stated.

Judge Cited for Campaign and Sexual Misconduct
Horton served as a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge from 2006 until his 2014 election to the Tenth District. The Office of the Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against Horton in January 2018, and Horton resigned from the bench in February 2019.

The disciplinary counsel’s charges of rule violations stemmed from three separate circumstances, which included Horton’s guilty plea to misdemeanor charges for failing to file accurate campaign finance statements, misusing county resources and staff for campaign work, and sexually harassing his legal intern and his secretary.

The panel conducted a five-day hearing where 16 witnesses testified. The panel concluded Horton violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules of Professional Conduct, and recommended he be suspended for two years with one year stayed. The full board adopted the panel’s findings, but recommended to the Supreme Court that Horton be indefinitely suspended and required to meet certain conditions to return to the practice of law.

Judge Directs Sexual Misconduct Toward Staff
The disciplinary complaint charged that Horton directed inappropriate sexual comments and conduct to members of his judicial staff in 2013 and 2014. His actions violated the rules that judges cannot abuse the prestige of their office to advance their personal or economic interest, or engage in sexual harassment. The Court’s opinion noted that, in 2009, the judicial code of conduct was updated to add a specific prohibition against sexual harassment and Horton’s case appears to be the first time in Ohio that a judge was found to have violated the rule.

Horton made inappropriate comments to his secretary, Elise Wyant, who was 25 years old at the time of the incidents, and to a 23-year-old legal intern, identified as M.B. in court documents. Horton would tell members of the staff they were “sexy” during work hours and commented on the attractiveness of other employees. Staff members stated they felt uncomfortable turning down Horton’s invitations to attend after-work happy hours, and Horton admitted that his behavior at happy hours and when he was intoxicated was “rude” and “obnoxious.”

M.B. testified she consented to engage in sexual conduct with Horton after her internship ended, and that Horton encouraged his friends to grope her. She testified she felt like she had to agree to Horton’s demands because of his power over her as a judge. Wyant admitted to engaging in sexual conversations with Horton, but she worried that it would affect her job if she told him she felt uncomfortable.

Horton argued the sexual activities were consensual. The Court’s opinion stated the judicial code is concerned with the actions of judges, not with the behavior of judicial staff or whether his employees acquiesced to the culture he created or consented to his advances.

“Horton engaged in sexual harassment in the performance of his judicial duties, abused the prestige of his office for his own personal interests, and acted in a manner that brings disrepute to the judiciary,” the opinion stated.

The Court agreed with the panel’s conclusion that Horton’s conduct was “predatory.”

Campaign Misconduct Violated Rules
Horton pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to file complete and accurate campaign statements during his run for judge on the Tenth District. In March 2014, he learned he would be unopposed for the seat and celebrated with a private dinner at a Columbus restaurant, which cost $1,014. Horton used campaign funds to pay for the dinner, which constituted an unreasonable and excessive campaign expense. He also spent $978 on a campaign fundraising event which only one person outside of his court and campaign staff attended. And he spent $173 on cigars to be available to campaign supporters. Those two expenditures also were found to be unreasonable and excessive.

Horton also was charged with rule violations because his staff worked on his campaign during work hours and with county resources. Horton argued that he told the staff they could “volunteer” on his campaign, and that it would be appreciated. Horton testified that he understood campaign work could not be conducted on county time and with county equipment, but that he expected his staff to be responsible for following the rules and accurately accounting for their time.

However, the panel found “overwhelming evidence” that Horton assigned Wyant campaign work during county work hours, even if he did not specifically direct her to do it while at work, and that she missed several days of work to attend campaign-related golf outings. Wyant also accepted two campaign contributions from attorneys in the judge’s chambers.

The Court rejected Horton’s arguments that he did not violate the rules because his employees chose not to follow rules regarding time-keeping and equipment use.

“If a sitting judge chooses to allow public employees to volunteer to work on his or her campaign, it is incumbent upon the judge to uphold the integrity of the judiciary by imposing clear rules prohibiting campaign work on county time or using county resources and strictly enforcing those rules,” the opinion stated.

Sanction Reflects Misconduct
The opinion noted the court takes seriously its responsibility in setting precedent concerning the sanction for a judge who violates the rules against sexual harassment. The Court stated that an indefinite suspension may not be appropriate in all cases of sexual misconduct or harassment, but it is the appropriate sanction in Horton’s case given the number of other violations, the harm to individual victims, and the harm to the public trust.

“We will protect the public by sending a strong message to members of the judiciary that abusing the trust of public employees and the public at large will result in significant consequences,” the opinion stated.

The Court conditioned Horton’s reinstatement to the practice of law on his continued participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. He also must submit to an Ohio Lawyers’ Assistance Program evaluation and comply with the recommendations arising from the evaluation; avoid contact with the former employees or interns who testified in the disciplinary proceedings; and pay for the costs of the proceedings.

2018-1746. Disciplinary Counsel v. Horton, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4139.

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