Porn Hysteria

Both the Rocky Mountain News (also here) and the Denver Post (also here and here) have made great hay out of pornography allegations made in a closed divorce proceeding in Eagle County, Colorado about the chief judge of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, some of which mirror the legally irrelevant porn charges made against the late Denver District Court Judge Larry Manzanares, who commited suicide in their wake.

The question is, why should anyone care?  The allegations bear only trivial relevance to the divorce itself.  Colorado is a “no fault” divorce state where the judge doesn’t care and doesn’t want to know why you split up.  If either spouse wants a divorce, it will be granted, and evidence of the grounds for divorce is legally irrelevant when introduced for that purpose.  There were also no child custody or child support issues in the marriage that was less than two years old when divorce papers were filed.

The allegations also don’t claim that the judge did anything illegal.  Watching topless adult women in person, or naked adult women on a computer screen, isn’t illegal.  The judge doesn’t even stand accused of having an affair.  And, unlike other high profile figures accused of moral impropriety, no one claims that this judge ever lied under oath.

Getting smashing drunk a couple of nights in a row, at a time when your new marriage is falling apart and you have a very demanding job, while certainly not a surgeon-general recommended activity, is not by itself proof of a serious long term alcohol problem. 

The sums allegedly spent on explicit material, about $3,000, might stretch the average family budget, but this is a decidely affluent family, for whom the spending was hardly a home wrecking sum.  At the time he was making about $162,000 a year, and like most federal judges, he entered the profession after having already established a successful legal career, which, at the very least, didn’t leave him deep in debt.

The newspapers claim that the FBI is looking into almost two year old allegations of improper use of a work computer.  But, why should they?  Limited use of workplace computers for personal use is almost universal, despite employers’ desires to the contrary, so long as productivity is not unduly impeded and the workplace network isn’t infected with viruses as a result.

Far more damning was this statement in the Denver Post:

Jaeger gave a divorce file to 9News, which first broadcast the story Thursday. A portion of the file was shared with The Denver Post by 9News.

Marcie Jaeger, the judge’s ex-wife, was under a court order to keep the divorce files sealed, and if she did what the Denver Post story claims, she may have commited contempt of court.  She denies these allegations.  Somehow, however, the only allegedly illegal activity in this story didn’t make the headline in any of them, although a prominent Denver law blogger, Jeralyn Merritt, was quick to note this understatement.

Judge Edward Nottingham, 59, was appointed to the federal bench in 1989. He became chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Colorado this year, a position based on seniority.  Short of impeachment, he has a job for life.  Only seven judges have been removed by Congress in the history of the nation, and all of them left in the face of much more serious allegations.

No one disputes that Judge Nottingham is hard working and rarely reversed on appeal, although his reputation as a tough judge has certainly not made him uniformly popular in the federal court bar.  Nottingham does have a reputation as a conservative judge, but he is no Bible thumping politician or pastor whose hypocritical rhetoric might open the door to attacks on his character as a result of otherwise legal and unexceptional private activity.

But, violations of the law apparently don’t sell papers nearly as well as allegations that somebody important looked at porn, so the hysteria continues, hot on the heels of mea culpas all around in the wake of the death of Larry Manzanares.

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