Retired Washington County judge reprimanded

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2011 - 8:56 PM

Thomas Armstrong should have tried to avoid appearance of impropriety, sanction report says.

A retired Washington County district judge has received a public reprimand from a state hearing panel for misconduct while he was in office.

The sanction against Thomas G. Armstrong, who left office Jan. 1 after a 30-year tenure on the bench, included a recommendation to the Minnesota Supreme Court to deny his requested status as a senior judge.

Armstrong couldn't be reached Wednesday for comment. In past months, however, he has written lengthy responses, including an 83-page letter to the investigating Board of Judicial Standards, to counter three complaints of misconduct.

In a rare memorandum attached to the special panel's Oct. 31 findings, Armstrong came under strong criticism for "unseemly and offensive submissions and the slandering of numerous present and former district judges and Supreme Court justices." Presiding officer Paul A. Nelson, himself a district judge, wrote that Armstrong's combativeness toward other members of the judiciary was evident from prior conflicts with the judicial board.

"Judge Armstrong has now made a complete and public record of his views," the memorandum read. "That he has chosen to impugn and insult the character and reputation of so many in doing so is troubling."

The most public of the three complaints involved Armstrong's decision to drop his name from the ballot last year after his longtime clerk, Dawn Hennessy, filed her election papers shortly before the 5 p.m. deadline. The judge, struggling with family matters, filed his retirement papers the next day.

That left Hennessy as the only candidate on the ballot. According to the complaint, Armstrong had revealed his retirement decision only to Hennessy and a court reporter.

The secretary of state's office was forced to open a new filing period for candidates, triggering a scramble that left voters in the 10th Judicial District -- eight counties north and east of the Twin Cities -- with 24 candidates. Tad Jude won the election.

The hearing panel's Monday decision said Hennessy filed for the seat without Armstrong's knowledge but after learning of it he failed to address even the appearance of impropriety. Armstrong showed no concern for the rush of negative publicity that followed, the panel said.

In a second complaint of misconduct, the panel said Armstrong improperly disclosed sealed information in a sexual abuse case to then-state Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley.

The panel cleared Armstrong of a third complaint alleging he tampered with a witness as the judicial board began its investigation. "It appears to the panel that such contacts were incidental and without any intent by Judge Armstrong to intimidate, influence or tamper with the investigation process," the panel wrote.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the state Supreme Court appointed the three-member panel, which also included political science professor Paula O'Loughlin of the University of Minnesota-Morris and Minneapolis attorney David T. Schultz.

The panel stayed the public reprimand for 60 days to leave time if Armstrong wishes to appeal.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

  • Read the sanction Findings of a special panel appointed by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court can be read at www.startribune.com/a774.
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