Obama's Federal Appeals Court Nominee Did Legal Work for Serial Killer, Then Presided as Judge Over Proceeding to Delay Execution

By Fred Lucas | June 22, 2010 | 9:55 PM EDT

U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny of Connecticut

(CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit,  Robert N. Chatigny, did legal work as a private defense attorney in 1992 for convicted serial killer Michael Ross and then, in 2005, as a federal district judge, led a proceeding that resulted in a delay in Ross’ execution. Chatigny says he forgot about the earlier work and should have recused himself from the matter.

“Had I recalled it, I would have recused myself,” Chatigny wrote in a questionnaire last month for the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

In 1992, Chatigny reviewed motions filed on behalf of Ross and exchanged a letter with Ross, work that did not involve direct representation of the killer. In early 2005, however, as a U.S. District judge in Connecticut, Chatigny led a conference call with attorneys and pushed Ross’ lawyer to do more to delay Ross’ execution, which the lawyer did after Chatigny bullied him over the phone, even threatening, “I’ll have your law license.”

An ethics complaint was subsequently filed that year against Chatigny by state prosecutors concerning his actions in the Ross case and Chatigny was eventually cleared of wrongdoing.
Many legal critics and Republicans think that Chatigny took extraordinary measures to halt the Ross execution in 2005. In committee hearings on Chatigny’s nomination to the 2nd Circuit, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said of the issue, “I don’t think this is a matter that’s going to lightly go away.”  Also, Sen. Tom Coburn said, “I just wonder why you think your behavior in this case--which is pretty extraordinary--why that behavior would warrant a promotion to a much more senior court.”
Last week, nonetheless, Chatigny’s nomination cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party line vote, 11-7-1, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) abstaining, and all of her Democratic colleagues on the committee voting to send Chatigny’s nomination to the full Senate.
Concerning the Ross case, the record shows that Chatigny’s earlier work in the case was uncovered only after the state prosecutors had filed the ethics complaint against the judge with the Second Circuit review panel. As part of that inquiry, they learned that Chatigny, while in private practice, had reviewed a motion on behalf of Ross filed by the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

President Barack Obama (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

Chatigny testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May of this year that in 1992 he reviewed a motion that someone else had prepared. He later told the committee he had exchanged letters with Ross.

In a written response to questions from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chatigny wrote, “I recalled my prior involvement only after one of the complainants amended his initial complaint to include a claim based on my prior involvement. Until then, I had no recollection of it.”

Ross had been convicted in 1987 and sentenced to death for the killing of four teenage girls; he boasted of raping and killing four other women. His 2005 execution would be the first in Connecticut in 40 years.

In late 2004, Ross had dropped all appeals and was ready to be executed. However, the state’s public defender's office argued that Ross was not competent to drop his appeals. Ross then fired his public defenders and hired a private attorney, T.R. Paulding, who had the unusual role of defending his client’s right to be executed.

When the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Ross was competent to drop his appeals, the public defender’s office brought its case to U.S. District Court in January 2005, with Chatigny presiding. Chatigny ruled in favor of the public defender.

One of the prosecutors asked Judge Chatigny in open court about any objections he might have to the death penalty.

In regards to that, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee asked, “Do you understand why one would find it difficult to believe that, even after the State’s Attorney questioned your partiality, you still failed to remember your involvement in one of the most notorious death penalty cases in the state’s history?”

Serial killer Michael Ross (AP/Connecticut Department of Correction)

Chatigny’s written response said, “Yes, I understand that a person unfamiliar with the facts regarding my prior involvement might question my failure to recall it. But the truth is I did not recall it. Had I recalled it, I would have recused myself.”

Weeks later, on Jan. 28, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Chatigny’s ruling, clearing the way for Ross’ execution that very day. It appeared the execution would proceed as scheduled.

However, Chatigny told Paulding in a conference call before the high court ruled that Ross “never should have been convicted, or if convicted, he never should have been sentenced to death,” and went on to tell Ross’ lawyer, “You better be prepared to deal with me” and, “I’ll have your law license.” So, Paulding asked to postpone the execution.

After a six-day competency hearing, a state Superior Court judge ruled in April 2005 that Ross was competent to forgo his appeals. Ross was subsequently executed on May 13, 2005, and pronounced dead at 2:25 a.m.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on April 28, Chatigny told senators his involvement in the Ross case “didn’t extend beyond essentially acting as local counsel for my friend for the purpose of filing an application to file a motion” and “some very limited research.” He later said Ross sent him a letter and he responded with a letter in July 1992 stating he was no longer involved in the matter.

In the Judiciary questionnaire, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asked, “Did you receive any orders following your filing an application to file a motion? If so, how many and for how many years?”

Chatigny said, “Yes. Soon after the amicus application was filed, I received an order granting the application. I do not recall receiving any other orders. However, my former firm’s file relating to the amicus application, when retrieved from storage by my former partner in 2005, contained service copies of various documents filed in the case in 1992, 1993 and 1994. I do not recall seeing any such documents at any time and do not believe I did see them.”

In the midst of the 2005 Ross controversy, Republican members of the Connecticut state legislature, both House and Senate, signed a letter to then-U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), asking for an impeachment inquiry into Chatigny’s actions.

“By failing to respect and comply with the law, and by failing to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, Judge Chatigny may have violated the code of conduct of United States’ judges,” the Republican lawmakers said in the letter.

“Obviously, Congress was not interested in taking action in 2005,” Rep. Arthur O’Neill, the ranking Republican on the state legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee, told CNSNews.com last week. “But the standard for removing a judge for misconduct, and the standard for not promoting a judge are quite different.”

O’Neill predicts that Chatigny will be approved on a party-line vote by the full Senate because his nomination made it through the Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.

“Judge Chatigny overstepped his bounds and was clearly biased and opposed to the death penalty,” O’Neill said. “He pushed past the line a federal judge should have gone, bordering on abuse of power.”