TOPEKA — District Court Judge William Cullins sought leniency from the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday from a disciplinary panel’s recommendation of public censure for creating a hostile work environment at the Montgomery County Courthouse with pervasive use of obscenities and offensive references to Black people and women.
Cullins, who has been on the district court bench in Independence since 2006, apologized to the Supreme Court for his behavior and for “words and actions” causing so many people to be drawn into his state disciplinary proceeding. He initiated counseling in 2019 to enhance his ability to deal with people and has engaged in one-on-one therapy in an attempt to modify his conduct.
“I made mistakes,” he said. “I’ve used harsh words when I should have used soft ones. I’ve spoken bluntly when I should have kept quiet. And I have cursed when I should not have. None of this was inspired by ill-will or bad intentions. I’m not sexist. I’m not racist. I’ve not used disparaging words about women.”
The Supreme Court is responsible for reviewing assessments of the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications and holds final authority on punishment for Cullins. The disciplinary panel proposed public censure, but could have recommended admonishment, a cease-and-desist order, suspension or removal from office. The justices took the case under advisement.
Todd Thompson, an attorney representing the state in the disciplinary case, said during the remote hearing before the Supreme Court that complaints were filed against Cullins that he frequently used obscene language at the courthouse and refused to give people opportunities to respond to his tirades. A four-day hearing found clear and convincing evidence the judge relied on abusive, unprofessional language in meetings with his staff and in public areas of the courthouse.
“In reality, it was very hostile language,” Thompson said. “For example, telling (court employee) Lance Carter to keep your f****** mouth shut. You don’t have a right to defend yourself here. Don’t say another f****** word. Get the f*** out of my sight and shut the door on your way out. Also, go sit down in that f****** chair and don’t say a f****** word.”
Thompson said testimony from attorneys, including a former Kansas attorney general, at the disciplinary hearing indicated Cullins routinely referred to women as “bitch” and “c***” at the courthouse. When clerk Joni Pratt resigned in frustration, Thompson said, evidence showed the judge was heard to yell “yahoo” in celebration of her exit.
In addition, the judge wrote expletives on documents he returned to the office of Montgomery County Attorney Larry Markle.
The inquiry into the judge’s outbursts revealed he asked a Black person in court if “you’re a Kansas boy” and spoke of a Black athlete as “not even a Kansas boy,” which could be viewed as demeaning to African American men, Thompson said. He also said the judge had expressed regret for using the word “boy,” but disciplinary action was called for in this instance.
“You should not be asked by someone, who clearly has been shown to have a terrible choice of words, to ignore the findings of the panel,” Thompson said.
Chris Joseph, the attorney representing Cullins before the Supreme Court, said his client did violate the code of conduct for judges. He urged the Supreme Court to issue an admonishment rather than public censure. He didn’t object to the disciplinary panel’s recommendation the Supreme Court require up to two years of counseling and block Cullins from returning to the position of chief judge of the 14th District.
“I do think admonition is sufficient, but if you are going to give him the public censure, what matters most to Judge Cullins is that he’s not deemed a racist or a bigot. He’s not,” Joseph said.
During the hearing, Justice Eric Rosen asked Cullins to explain the source of his caustic demeanor and why his foul-mouthed behavior appeared to escalate.
Cullins said the allegations were tied to a period in which he suffered back pain that disrupted his sleep. He also said it was true that he had “an abrasive personality” in which he freely cussed. He said he was convinced he ran an orderly courtroom and made fair judicial decisions.
Justice Dan Biles appeared to share the view of other justices that Cullins’ conduct fell short of professional standards expected in Kansas.
“You appreciate, do you not, that it’s simply intolerable to have our judges abusing any employee in the entire system. Right?” Biles said.
“Yes,” Cullins said. “I’ve always tried to balance out my curtness, my bluntness by talking to people. I made an error in this sense of talking to people too sternly, hoping I could just get them back on the rails without anybody getting written up. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“What assurance do we have of that, that you won’t make that mistake again?” Biles asked. “I honestly don’t accept the idea that I can be nice to 90 people and abusive to two and that’s okay.”
Justice Evelyn Wilson said at the hearing Cullins affirmed he frequently used the F-word at the courthouse, but sought assurances the judge understood the word was extremely offensive.
Wilson reminded Cullins most court employees or people with business before his court would be reluctant to complain about abusive conduct by a judge.
“Your power differential, which exists all the time, may be preventing people from confronting you with things that you do that make them uncomfortable,” Wilson said.
Before working as a district court judge, Cullin was in private practice for more than a decade. He also was the city prosecutor for Independence and city attorney in Coffeyville.
Justice Caleb Stegall asked Thompson, who represented the state in the disciplinary case, if Cullins would be in front of the Supreme Court if he hadn’t used “f***” so many times at the courthouse.
“Yes, I think we would,” Thompson said. “There was a turnover of employees. If he had not used obscenities, but ordered them to sit down and shut up, and they weren’t allowed to defend themselves, and used loud and angry voices … his behavior would still have caused us to be here.”