It was a long time coming, but justice has finally been served in the extraordinary judicial operation overseen by now-defrocked Judge Willard Proctor.
More than two years ago, reporter Mara Leveritt exposed in the Times a number of irregularities in Proctor's operation of an independent probation program. He sent hundreds of probationers into the arms of Cycle Breakers Inc., a private agency he established and which he hoped to build into a national operation. Health screenings, book reports and stints in halfway houses of dubious repute were among the unorthodox features of Proctor's rehabilitation regimen. Also fees, lots of fees. They went to pay off the mortgage Proctor had taken out to buy a building for Cycle Breakers in the East End. If probationers didn't pay fees to his agency, Proctor sent them to jail. The state Supreme Court has now ruled Proctor had no authority to assess or collect fees in the “civil probation” program he invented. It was a punishment he often put on people who'd already discharged sentences for criminal violations.
Proctor, in short, operated a gulag, an eternal fee scheme that some could never escape. Pleading letters to the judge that were discovered in his office tell of their sad plight.
I wrote more than a year ago that a lawsuit seemed ripe over Proctor's actions. At least two lawsuits have now been filed and the county government will have to answer for its negligence as well. The suits promise to reveal much more about Proctor's enterprise. Proctor's federal lawsuit seeking reinstatement won't place his actions in a better light, either, no matter what procedural objections he might lodge over his removal.
How did this go on so many years? There are several explanations. One is Proctor himself, a bright lawyer with an amiable side who wrapped himself in religion and a professed belief in rehabilitation. He came to the bench on account of removal of another black judge with an ethics problem. People wanted him and his noble idea to succeed.
But lawyers recognized problems years ago, including Proctor's own erratic behavior (gathering people to pray for the death of Mara Leveritt, for example). Those with regular business in his court were reluctant to complain, fearing retribution. Still, several brave souls took complaints to the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission several years ago. Then under different leadership, the commission staff inexplicably blew them off.
Things changed when former judge David Stewart became director of the commission. He and an energetic staff lawyer and investigator, David Sachar, plunged into the mounting complaints with vigor. Proctor's own staff — at great risk — provided damaging information. Mara Leveritt's continued reporting gave important publicity to the affair and encouraged new complaints. (The mainstream media ignored the story until forced by official events. I had to smile at the Democrat-Gazette's front-page treatment of allegations contained in one lawsuit against Proctor. It was serious stuff, true. Also old news to anyone who read the Arkansas Times.)
The hearing process was long — extended by Proctor's legal blocking efforts. But it ended definitively. The Supreme Court upheld multiple ethics violations and ordered his immediate removal from the bench.
Now comes the cleanup. Gov. Mike Beebe has appointed Ernest Sanders of Little Rock to succeed Proctor. Efforts are underway to cleanse the court of its ties with Cycle Breakers. Clearly, Proctor's staff should be merged with the state probation system. The verdict is in on the dangers of a special program.