Lowering the Bench

Judge Who Meowed and, on One Occasion, Roared, Gets Three-Year Suspension

Len KachinskyBut not his last (image: Netflix)

The ABA Journal and other sources report the unsurprising but notable news that Len Kachinsky, who once incompetently represented Brendan Dassey as seen in Making a Murderer, and was also somehow a municipal judge, has been suspended because of what the Journal describes as “unusual interactions” with his court manager. See ‘Quirky’ Lawyer Acquitted of Stalking; Concedes He Did ‘Meow Randomly on Occasion’” (Dec. 14, 2018).

Earlier this year Wisconsin’s Judicial Commission recommended that Kachinsky be suspended for at least a year (see Updates!” (Mar. 19, 2019)), but the Wisconsin Supreme Court correctly held that would not be long enough. See In re Judicial Disciplinary Proceedings Against the Honorable Leonard D. Kachinsky, No. 2018AP628-J, 2019 WI 82 (July 9, 2019) (for some reason not putting “Honorable” in quotes). I’m not sure why it didn’t just disqualify him, but it seems unlikely Kachinsky will in the future be sitting on any bench not located in a park.

The tale told by the court’s opinion is quite remarkable, and includes some details that I believe are new, or else I would likely have mentioned them.

Kachinsky somehow managed to serve as a municipal judge for 21 years, though this might be because in the small town where he served (pop. ~15,000), municipal judges don’t do much. Fox Crossing Municipal Court is in session three Thursdays a month for at most two hours per session. There were only two employees during the relevant time, including the judge, which was unfortunate for the other one.

He hired her as a court manager in 2016, and at first things were fine. They communicated about work issues and some personal issues in a “mutually friendly and supportive fashion” for the first year or so. After that, it started to get weird.

In addition to odd personal comments on the manager’s Facebook page, in March 2017 Kachinsky did this:

When M.B. was back at work a few days later, Judge Kachinsky and a friend arrived at the municipal court office while M.B. was out of the office. Judge Kachinsky then hid behind a counter. When M.B. returned to the office, he popped up and shouted “roar,” which startled M.B. During this visit, Judge Kachinsky was sufficiently loud and boisterous that his conduct disturbed nearby village employees.

There is nothing specifically in the Code of Judicial Conduct about popping up from behind a counter and shouting “ROAR,” but it’s sort of an unwritten rule. I believe Bushrod Washington used to do something similar, but that was in the early days when the Court’s procedures weren’t well defined. See, e.g. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803) (“It is emphatically the province and duty of judicial officers not to pop up from behind things and scare people, but rather to say what the law is.”)

The manager decided it might be best to keep their relationship work-related, and she said so. He did not take it well. While he does not seem to have been accused of sexual harassment, he was very, very insistent that they should continue to be personal friends and communicate on personal matters. Very insistent. Eventually she filed a complaint with the town’s human-resources manager, and they had a meeting to discuss boundaries. Within a few days, he was crossing those boundaries again.

In addition to more personal communications, this is when he started meowing. And there is a further detail in the opinion that I’m sure we didn’t have until now:

On three occasions during that week, Judge Kachinsky came to the municipal court offices. He sat close to M.B.’s desk, facing her. He did nothing except tap his pen and make “cat noises.” On one visit, Judge Kachinsky continued this extremely odd behavior for 45 minutes. During one of the visits, Judge Kachinsky also told M.B. a story about a dog being raped and then repeated the story a second time.

Just a tip: a story like that one will pretty much never be appropriate at work even once.

The opinion goes on and on describing the remarkable degree to which Kachinsky insisted on being friends, to the point of intimidation. This included not just suggesting she would be terminated, but less common tactics such as leaving a blood-stained envelope on his desk where she could see it, mentioning that he knew where her family members lived, and saying something would be happening soon that would “cause a lot of fire and fury at the Municipal Building” for which she should be “prepared.” (This was about two months after Trump had used the phrase “fire and fury” in a somewhat similar way, though Trump and his target have since made up.) That last one was sufficiently disturbing that she called police. “When the village police chief interviewed Judge Kachinsky about the email,” the opinion notes, “he giggled more than once in response to the police chief’s questions.”

Eventually a higher court issued a restraining order, which Kachinsky promptly violated. He was arrested and prosecuted for felony stalking, of which a jury acquitted him. But as the Wisconsin Supreme Court pointed out, whatever the explanation for that acquittal, it doesn’t mean Kachinsky is off the hook in terms of ethics charges.

The court had little trouble finding Kachinsky violated the rule that a judge should act “at all times in a manner that maintains the trust and confidence of the public in the judicial system.” Though this was far from the worst thing he did, the court commented that “[w]e fail to see how staring at a court employee for 45 minutes while tapping a pencil and making cat noises constitutes the maintenance of high standards of personal conduct or promotes the integrity of the judiciary,” and I think few would argue with that.

Kachinsky is already off the bench, but still has an interest in being appointed as a “reserve municipal judge.” The court suspended him for three years, and held that before seeking any appointment he would have to prove he’s fit to serve. That seems pretty unlikely, although the standard for public service is not what it used to be.