Kansas Supreme Court issues 1-year suspension to judge for racist, sexist remarks in courthouse

Judge William Cullins given chance to reduce penalty with therapy

The Kansas Supreme Court issued an order suspending District Court Judge William Cullins from work as a judge for one year for making racist and sexist remarks in the courthouse that created a hostile working environment. He will be given an opportunity to reduce the sanction by engaging in professional counseling and training. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Supreme Court issued an order suspending District Court Judge William Cullins from work as a judge for one year for making racist and sexist remarks in the courthouse that created a hostile working environment. He will be given an opportunity to reduce the sanction by engaging in professional counseling and training. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court suspended a district court judge in south-central Kansas on Friday for a maximum of one year for violations of the judicial code of conduct for unprofessional behavior punctuated by humiliation of court employees, vulgar language and offensive references to women and Black people.

District Judge William Cullins, who serves Montgomery and Chautauqua counties, sought lenience from the state’s highest court after a disciplinary panel recommended public censure in response to the judge’s creation of a hostile work environment. The 15-year veteran of the bench apologized to the justices during an October hearing, but declared he was neither a sexist nor racist.

The Supreme Court brushed aside Cullins’ plea for mercy by issuing a one-year suspension from judicial duties effective immediately. After 60 days, however, if enrolled in an approved counseling and training program the suspension could be shortened by court order. The Supreme Court also decided Cullins must pay the cost of the inquiry into his conduct.

In the order, the Supreme Court concluded the district court judge’s behavior affirmed by testimony of witnesses “has been quite troubling.”

“He has intimidated and publicly humiliated court employees,” the justices agreed. “He has shown bias and the appearance of bias by his insulting and careless remarks, even while on the bench and presiding over hearings. By his coarse language in the courthouse, he has sullied the dignity and propriety of the judiciary.”

The justices dismissed Cullins’ argument that he deserved compassion because he was “efficient and fair in his hearings, didn’t mean to hurt or harm people and was just a “salty” speaker. That line of defense didn’t stop the Supreme Court from moving beyond public censure to suspension of the judge.

Any training and counseling program designed to reduce the penalty issued by the Supreme Court must feature best practices for “working with fellow employees, especially those one supervises, and also include workplace issues of harassment, retaliation and hostile environment,” the order said.

The Supreme Court is responsible for reviewing assessments of the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications and holds final authority on punishment in disciplinary cases.

Cullins, who was city prosecutor in Independence and city attorney in Coffeyville before becoming a judge, said he had made mistakes in the past.

“I’ve used harsh words when I should have used soft ones,” Cullins said. “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.”

In 2019, a five-person disciplinary panel gathered evidence at a proceeding that resembled a trial. That panel concluded an admonishment or cease-and-desist directive was insufficient discipline for Cullins’ actions. The panel also decided removing Cullin from the bench wasn’t warranted. In the end, the recommendation was for public censure and a ban on future appointment as chief judge. That panel also urged the Supreme Court to require Cullins to undergo counseling for a minimum of one year and failure to comply should result in suspension.

Todd Thompson, an attorney representing the state in the disciplinary case, said evidence showed Cullins relied on abusive language in meetings with his staff and in public areas of the courthouse. Thompson said testimony from attorneys, including a former Kansas attorney general, indicated Cullins routinely referred to women as “bitch” and “c***” at the courthouse. In addition, the judge wrote expletives on documents he returned to the office of the Montgomery County prosecutor.

Thompson offered the Supreme Court another illustration: “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.”

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.