Judge Robert Chatigny, nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, faced withering questions today from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee about how he handled the case of a notorious serial killer.
The serial killer, Michael Ross, was nicknamed the “Roadside Strangler” for a string of killings in the early 1980s. In 2005, Chatigny (above), as a federal district court judge, pushed for a hearing to determine Ross’ mental competency. He pushed so hard that prosecutors later filed an ethics complaint against him.
A three-judge committee that included then-U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey publicly cleared Chatigny (PDF) of any ethics violations, but memory of Chatigny’s actions caused a delay in his confirmation hearing for the circuit. The hearing was initially scheduled for March 10.
“I don’t think this is a matter that’s going to lightly go away,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, told Chatigny today. “I think it evidenced the lack of a proper understanding of your role in the matter.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) criticized Chatigny for doing “everything possible to prevent the execution” of Ross. “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.”
Chatigny, speaking slowly, expressed regret for how he handled Ross’ case, as he has almost since he became involved in it. “I was trying to do the right thing to protect the integrity of the system. If we’re going to have an execution, we ought to do it the right way,” he told senators. But, he added, he went about the case the wrong way.
“If I had to do it again, I’d certainly do it differently,” Chatigny said.
Central to Chatigny’s involvement in the Ross case is a 55-minute conference call he held with lawyers. Ross had decided to halt appeals and accept execution, and his attorney, T.R. Paulding, said Ross was competent. Paulding pushed for the execution to proceed. The state had not executed an inmate in decades.
In the conference call in January 2005, Chatigny tried to persuade Paulding to change course. "What you are doing is terribly, terribly wrong. No matter how well motivated you are, you have a client whose competence is in serious doubt and you don't know what you're talking about," he said, according to a transcript of the call.
Paulding then requested a delay in the execution, and a state judge found Ross to be competent. Ross was executed in May 2005.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) questioned Chatigny about his language on the call, suggesting that it raises concerns about judicial temperament.
“I regard judicial temperament as vitally important — indispensable,” Chatigny replied. “And one of the difficulties I have with the Ross case is the way I spoke to Mr. Paulding. I used words that were excessive, words that were harsh. I regretted them immediately.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the only Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee to attend Chatigny’s confirmation hearing, also questioned him about the details of the Ross case. But, downplaying its importance, she said Chatigny has issued 450 opinions as a federal district court judge since 1994 and that only 16 of them have been reversed.
Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi.