At a convicted child molester's sentencing last December, Judge Jack Nordby's frustration with WATCH, a Minneapolis court-monitoring organization whose volunteers carry red clipboards, finally boiled over.
Nordby tore into the organization, comparing their tactics to the hand signals gang members use to intimidate court witnesses, according to an 11-page court transcript. He called the red clipboard "an ingenious device," which "says, principally to the judge but to others as well: 'We are watching you. We do not trust you.' "
Now, in a formal complaint made public Wednesday, the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards accuses Nordby of misconduct for publicly airing his disdain for WATCH in his courtroom.
The board cites violations of three judicial canons and nine rules, including some dealing with a judge's duty to uphold the integrity of the judiciary, promote public confidence, and avoid actual or apparent conflicts of interest.
Documents released by the board include a response from Nordby, who refused to accept a public reprimand and opted to exercise his right to fight the charges before a three-person panel.
"The real unfortunate part is [WATCH] tactics have worked on a number of occasions, but Judge Nordby isn't going to be intimidated," said his attorney, Joe Friedberg. "He's got the cojones to stand up to this, and we're gonna take them on."
The formal complaint, which stemmed from a complaint by WATCH to the standards board, also accuses Nordby of straying into an advocacy role for Kris Hahn, the child molester Nordby sentenced for first-degree criminal sexual conduct. The complaint said Nordby failed to point out how WATCH volunteers tried to intimidate him.
"He can say anything he wants about WATCH on his own time," said the nonprofit organization's executive director, Marna Anderson. "But to use the court's time and a certain proceeding where you're dealing with the sentencing of a sexual assault defendant, [that's] not appropriate at all."
Nordby and his attorneys said his comments were in response to WATCH's attempt to influence him and all the county's judges through nonverbal intimidation and other actions. Friedberg said Nordby's comments were ethical because he made clear that he wouldn't be swayed.
Nordby, 69, referred comment to his attorneys. He's a 16-year veteran of the bench in Hennepin County and must retire when he turns 70.
Founded in 1992, WATCH has trained hundreds of volunteers to monitor hearings focusing largely on issues such as domestic violence, racial disparity, police brutality and the conduct of judges. Anderson said that contrary to Nordby's claims, volunteers are trained to be "absolute observers" and not bring attention to themselves.
"We have a right to be in the courtroom as much as anybody else does," she said. "If you take his logic, anybody in the courtroom is somehow trying to intimidate or influence a judge."
Friedberg agreed that courtrooms are public places, but not places to promote an agenda. "They're spectators, and they're not supposed to be sitting there flashing messages to judges," he said. "That's what this does. By flashing those red clipboards, they're letting judges know 'We're watching you.' "
According to the standards board's website, once a panel hears a case, the board decides whether or not to recommend to the state Supreme Court that a judge be disciplined. Based on such a recommendation, the Supreme Court could impose public censure, removal or involuntary retirement, the site says.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921