Columns » Max Brantley

The road to hell

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Circuit Judge Willard Proctor has some good intentions. But his judgment is terrible.

This week, a three-member judicial discipline panel recommended that Proctor be removed from the bench for his lapses. The recommendation goes to a nine-member commission and then to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Proctor admitted many of the findings. He said they were mistakes of the heart.

Proctor is a believer in rehabilitation. He set up a private nonprofit, Cycle Breakers, which he said would be a better way than the state probation program that other judges use. He had a plan that revenues from his court would pay for everything. He virtually pledged court revenue as collateral on a loan to buy an old school for a rehab facility.

Neighborhood protests killed the rehab facility. Saddled with a big mortgage, he needed to keep the money flowing. So he began producing unprecedented fees and fines from his probationers. He also invented a “civil probation” program in which he kept people under his supervision, ginning money, after probation had ended. People who didn't pay his fees went to jail. (Failure to do a book report could get you docked; you could pay to leave meetings early; you would pay if you didn't attend.)

Cycle Breakers was the judge's alter ego, said an accountant who testified about the conflicts and shoddy operation. The 15-member board of the organization included 11 of his felony probationers. The organization paid Proctor for $34,000 in expenses, everything from his church's dinner to his Supreme Court lawyer's license fee.

It was disappointing to me that the disciplinary panel decided to give Proctor a pass for use of the non-existent “civil probation” and his gulag-like debtors' prison. The panel agreed that the law didn't provide for these practices, but said it didn't specifically prohibit them either. This is a scary precedent for outlaw judging. No statute, no foul?  Proctor, by the way, despite claims he's corrected problems, is still collecting fees for Cycle Breakers from old probationers.

The panel chose to focus on Proctor's utter lack of judgment in the case of one of his probationers, Demoreo Davis. Davis was given run of Proctor's office, stayed in his home, rode with him to work and received money from him in prison. On this behavior alone, the panel said, Proctor should be removed, though it cited numerous other lapses.

If removal is the result, justice has been served. But also note the panel's words: “Most of the CB [Cycle Breakers] issues were unchallenged or not resisted by the prosecuting attorney's office, the quorum court, the county judge, other attorneys working within the county and the county; in fact, the county seemed perfectly content to spend the money CB raised.”

This is painfully true, if lacking as a defense given the power Proctor held over the silent. Probationers would rather pay Cycle Breakers money than go to jail. Prosecutors, with hundreds of cases pending, were reluctant to call out an unethical judge. The Pulaski County judge and county attorney, happy to have his dough, have never been sticklers on law and ethics.

Happily, silence was not universal. The Times' Mara Leveritt wrote extensively on Judge Proctor's operation. His employees put jobs on the line to testify. The state judicial discipline agency departed from its former leadership's reluctance to take on the do-gooder judge who carries his religion as a shield. It produced an inescapable result, no matter the sugar coating given Proctor's claim of saintly intent. Some saint. He exploited drug addicts for a dream of building a national Cycle Breakers operation.

 

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