In August 2013, Yellowstone County (Billings), Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced ex-teacher Stacey Rambold to thirty days in jail for raping one of his 14-year-old students . Baugh had followed a recommendation from Rambold’s lawyer by giving Rambold a sentence of 15 years in prison with all but 31 days suspended and a one day credit for time served. Even worse, the judge showed gender and racial bias against Cherise Morales—the 14 year old, Hispanic girl who Rambold raped. During the sentencing hearing, Baugh stated that the girl was “as much in control of the situation” as her rapist and that she was “older than her chronological age.”
Upon hearing about this incident, Joanne Tosti-Vasey, former PA NOW president and current member of the PA NOW Executive Committee contacted Montana NOW President Marian Bradley. After consulting with each other, Montana NOW and Pennsylvania NOW decided to coordinate a state and national action to push back against this egregious behavior and use of rape myths.
We focused on both the unethical behavior of Judge Baugh and on working to overturn the illegal sentence handed down on Rambold.
The Ethics Complaint Against Judge Baugh
First, we focused on a petition to sanction Judge Baugh. The first step was to help get a groundswell of people calling for the Montana Judicial Standards Commission to review and sanction Judge Baugh for his behavior. Working with We are Ultraviolet and Fitzgibbon Media we gathered over 130,000 signatures calling for the state to sanction Judge Baugh. Meanwhile we contacted Legal Momentum (a national women’s advocacy organization that houses the National Judicial Education Program on Gender Bias in the Courts) and Pennsylvania’s Women’s Law Project to assist us in crafting our complaint.
Using these petition signatures, we publicly delivered our complaint on September 24, 2013 against Baugh urging the Montana Judicial Standards Commission and the Montana Supreme Court to
- Remove Judge Baugh from the bench for his misconduct related to his handling of and speech about the rape case involving the sentencing of Stacey Rambold; and
- Implement a mandatory judicial education program for the judiciary on the fair adjudication of sexual assault cases to help the Montana justice system develop techniques to minimize victim re-traumatization while safeguarding the rights of the defendant.
As a result of this complaint and several others, Judge Baugh acknowledged on December 7, 2013 that he violated one of the three ethics rules we alleged he had violated. He said that he had failed to “promote public confidence in the independence, integrity,and impartiality of the judiciary,” and did not “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” But he refused to acknowledge that he used racial and gender bias in handing down the sentence and as a result, did not uphold the law. So we submitted a response detailing the rape myths he used in creating the sentence and in not following the law with the minimum, mandatory two-year sentence.
Then Baugh, in an effort to avoid the sanctions he could see coming, announced in January that he would not be seeking reelection in 2014. A couple of weeks after this announcement, the Montana Judicial Standards Commission announced that they were sending a recommendation to the Montana Supreme Court to use their oversight powers to sanction Judge Baugh.
The Amicus Brief
Meanwhile, on December 6, 2013, the Montana Attorney General’s office filed an appeal before the Montana Supreme Court. They are asking the court to remand the case back to the Yellowstone County District Court for sentencing that would follow the state law’s mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. They are asking for, at minimum, a four-year sentence.
NOW once again weighed in. Knowing that it is possible for advocacy groups to file “friend of the court” amicus curiae briefs, we contacted two members of our network of women’s legal advocacy organizations—The Women’s Law Project and Legal Momentum—to see if there was any interest in pursuing this amicus. They put us in contact with Legal Voice and the Sexual Violence Law Center. Both of these organizations are based in Seattle, Washington and serve women in Montana. As a result, all six organizations agreed to file an amicus.Attorney Vanessa Soriano Power and other members of the law firm Stoel Rives LLP took the lead in writing our brief and petitioning the Court to add our brief to their review of this case.
Montana’s Supreme Court rarely accepts amicus briefs, but did in this case. The amicus brief we filed focuses on rape myths and their inappropriate impact in adjudicating and sentencing in sexual-assault cases. We are asking the court to take the effect of these types of myths into account when making their decision in this case and, upon remand, to assign the case of Stacey Rambold to a new judge for appropriate and legal re-sentencing.
What’s Happening Now?
Both cases were sent to the Montana Supreme Court for review. We heard on April 25 (the 10th anniversary of the March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC that brought out over one million people) that the decisions on what type of sanctioning Judge Baugh will receive and whether or not Stacey Rambold will be re-sentenced is pending.
This morning, the Montana Supreme Court handed down their decision in the Montana v. Rambold case (copy of the opinion can be seen here). The Court listened to the arguments presented by both the Attorney General’s office and by NOW. They overturned (“vacated”) the 30-day sentence and remanded the case back to the Yellowstone County Courts for re-sentencing in line with the minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines. In addition, they have ordered the county to assign the case to another judge for Rambold’s re-sentencing.
The last two paragraphs of the opinion indicate that the Court heavily relied on our amicus in ordering the remand:
¶21 On remand for resentencing, we further instruct the court to reassign the case to a different judge to impose sentence. We have considered several factors to decide whether a new judge should be assigned to resentence a defendant in a particular case, among them; whether the original judge would reasonably be expected to have substantial difficulty in putting out of his or her mind previously-expressed views determined to be erroneous, whether reassignment is advisable to preserve the appearance of justice, and whether reassignment would entail waste and duplication out of proportion to any gain in preserving the appearance of fairness. Coleman v. Risley, 203 Mont. 237, 249, 663 P.2d 1154 (1983) 10 (citations omitted). In State v. Smith, 261 Mont. 419, 445-46, 863 P.2d 1000, 1016-17 (1993), we remanded for resentencing to a new judge when the judge’s statement at trial evidenced bias against the defendant. Even where bias did not require reassignment to a new judge, we have reassigned where media coverage and public outrage “have snowballed to create an appearance of impropriety.” Washington v. Montana Mining Properties, 243 Mont. 509, 516, 795 P.2d 460, 464 (1990).
¶22 In the present case, Judge Baugh’s statements reflected an improper basis for his decision and cast serious doubt on the appearance of justice. The idea that C.M. could have “control” of the situation is directly at odds with the law, which holds that a youth is incapable of consent and, therefore, lacks any control over the situation whatsoever. That statement also disregards the serious power disparity that exists between an adult teacher and his minor pupil. In addition, there is no basis in the law for the court’s distinction between the victim’s “chronological age” and the court’s perception of her maturity. Judge Baugh’s comments have given rise to several complaints before the Judicial Standards Commission, which has recommended disciplinary action by this Court. Those complaints will be addressed in a separate proceeding. Under these circumstances, we conclude that reassignment to a new judge is necessary to preserve the appearance of fairness and justice in this matter.
Meanwhile the sanctions against Judge Baugh are still pending. This was confirmed in this morning’s opinion announced by the Montana Supreme Court: Judge Baugh’s comments have given rise to several complaints before the Judicial Standards Commission, which has recommended disciplinary action by this Court. Those complaints will be addressed in a separate proceeding.
We feel strongly that our work on this case shows our commitment to looking out for the women, children and families of our states and our nation. This behavior by our teachers and our judiciary should not and will not be tolerated. Our vigilance will continue.
— blog written by Joanne Tosti-Vasey and Marian Bradley