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Crossdressed Judge Reconsiders Resignation

Is it just that I live in Massachusetts, or is prudishness really dead? The most remarkable aspect of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Somma's OUI arrest was not that he was dressed in drag, but that the legal community's response was to say, "So what? Let's get back to work." When news of Somma's crossdressing broke a week after his arrest, he quickly submitted his resignation, anticipating a "media frenzy." But when area lawyers rallied to urge him to stay, citing his skill on the bench, no doubt even he was surprised. In a letter this week to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the judge wrote:

I am gratified and humbled by the kind words expressed by so many in personal letters I received and in the several letters that were sent to the Court of Appeals supporting my reinstatement. That outpouring of support has led me conclude, contrary to my initial belief, that the media frenzy occasioned by this episode would not be an impediment to my continued service as a judge. Consequently, over the past few weeks I have been communicating with the Court of Appeals concerning my status and expect that these discussions will continue.

The circuit executive for the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals confirms that the effective date of Somma's resignation, which was to be April 1, is now extended to May 15. No one at the court is saying why the date was pushed back, but The Boston Globe reports today that some lawyers interpret the delay as intended to allow the circuit court time to consider rescinding Somma's resignation. Still, the article points out, rescission is by no means a done deal.

The real story here, as I said at the outset, is the legal community's reaction. The letter circulated in support of Somma said, "Recent events do not in any manner diminish Judge Somma's ability to fulfill his duties and to remain as a highly respected member of the bench." Globe writer Jonathan Saltzman zeros in on the import of this when he says:

The letter-writing campaign illustrates how perspectives have changed about behavior such as cross-dressing. Twenty years ago, several lawyers acknowledged, it was highly unlikely that the legal community would have rallied around a judge who was arrested under circumstances like those in the Somma case.

Is a judge's private life always out of bounds? Of course not, if it involves unlawful or unethical behavior. As Jeffrey Rosen writes this week in The New Republic, "Americans are infinitely tolerant of moral transgression, except where they're not." But perhaps the legal profession has reached the point where it accepts that a judge's personal preferences, provided they are lawful, are not reflections of morals and have no bearing on qualification to serve.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on April 3, 2008 at 12:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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