Judge Harlan’s “Retirement” A Lose-Lose

by Kemp Brinson


Tenth Circuit Judge Beth Harlan has given up her judicial seat after reaching a deal with the State Attorney’s Office to drop all charges pending against her (The Ledger). She faced charges associated with allegedly helping her judicial assistant falsify time records. In a previous post, I was critical of the State Attorney’s Office for not seeking appointment of a special prosecutor. The charges against the judicial assistant remain pending.

This development raises some troubling concerns. Our system is based in fairness. It should not matter whether someone is an elected official, blue collar trades-person, homemaker, homeless, or a member of the law enforcement community. Justice should be blind to your station in life, or the office you hold.

Here, all Judge Harlan had to do was hand in her resignation, and the charges were dropped. If you or I were charged with the same offense, we would not have been able to just quit our jobs and walk away. If all State Attorney Jerry Hill and prosecutor Brad Copley wanted was her resignation, and not criminal penalties, then it was not  appropriate to prosecute her criminally. Were they really after justice? Or the elimination of a particular judge they didn’t like?

I wish I had solid evidence that the latter is not the case. The way this went down, they gave those of us who respect and admire our system little to offer in its defense. On one hand, the State Attorney’s Office (probably) would claim it was not after her robe, but was instead just enforcing the law. On the other hand, all she had to do was hand in her robe and this whole escapade evaporated. How can the State Attorney, whose office I genuinely respect and admire, turn such a blind eye to how this looks? To anyone who isn’t predisposed to respect them to begin with, it looks really suspicious.

I have no idea if Judge Harlan is innocent or guilty of what she was accused of. If she was innocent, then I wish she had had the courage to stand up to the State Attorney instead of getting bullied out of office. If she was guilty, then shame on the the State Attorney for cutting a very poor deal that let a criminal go free. If there was no case, the charges should have been dropped without conditions. If there was a case, the deal should have reflected the appropriate penalty for a lesser crime, a penalty that any one of us facing similar charges would have faced. Defendants should not get special special treatment just because of who they are.

No matter how you slice this, Judge Harlan was treated differently because she was a judge. That’s wrong. The State Attorney’s Office made itself look suspicious in the process, beginning with their refusal to appoint a special prosecutor. This is what we call a lose-lose.