A research attorney for an appellate court judge has been suspended for tweeting disparaging remarks about former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline and his case during the ethics hearing against him on Thursday (see “On trial,” Nov. 16).
A court spokesman said Sarah Peterson Herr, who works for Judge Christel Marquardt of the Kansas Court of Appeals, was suspended Friday pending an investigation. Five replacement judges are hearing the case in the Kansas Supreme Court because five of the seven Supreme Court justices recused themselves. Marquardt is not one of the replacements.
Peterson Herr’s tweets under the Twitter handle @sparklylillife attacked Kline personally, mocked his positions, and suggested he bears some responsibility for the murder of Kansas late-term abortionist George Tiller. The tweets from Thursday were saved by Operation Rescue and posted on its website. They include the following:
“You can watch that naughty naughty boy, Mr. Kilein [sic], live!” (9:03 a.m.)
“‘You don't think a sealed document is meant to be confidential’ BURN” (9:39 a.m.)
“ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME. [sic] WHERE ARE THE VICTIMS? ALL THE PEOPLE WITH THE RECORDS WHO WERE STOLEN.” (9:53 a.m.)
“Why is Phil [sic] Klein smiling? There is nothing to smile about, [expletive].” (9:54 a.m.)
“I love that Phil [sic] is all talking about Dr. Tiller like they are cool, and not that his witch hunt helped lead to Dr. Tiller's murder.” (9:59 a.m.)
“Q - How do you get to re-categorize the grand jury's request? A - They liked my pony?” (10:16 a.m.)
“I did like how the district court judges didn't speak the entire time. Thanks for kicking out the SC Phil [sic]! Good call!” (10:36)
“I predict that he will be disbarred for a period not less than 7 years,” (12:05 p.m.)
Research attorneys for appellate judges can have a major impact on the outcomes of cases. They look up precedents, analyze cases, and draft initial opinions. They also function as “gatekeepers” of the factual record. That is, they compare claims from the different parties and inform judges what the evidence and court records actually state.
Clerks and research attorneys at the appellate level also often work closely together. If they feel comfortable making prejudicial public statements about a current case, it raises questions about whether the atmosphere among the clerks is wholly fair-minded and tolerant.
John Farnan, president of the pro-life National Lawyers Association, called this development “astonishing and extremely disconcerting.”
Farnan emphasized that before the investigation is completed he could not say what impact Peterson Herr’s attitude toward Kline might have had on the case. Still, he said, to have a court officer predicting the outcome “gives you the feeling that they have some inside information.”
“When the officers of the court are apparently prejudging the issue, that’s extremely disconcerting and troubling,” Farnan added. “It fuels suspicion that this is a persecution and not a prosecution. It doesn’t reflect well on the court and the public’s anticipation of a fair trial.”
Kline’s attorney, Tom Condit, told Operation Rescue, “The unavoidable question is: How prevalent is this attitude elsewhere on the court staff? This will not enhance public confidence in the courts. An investigation is warranted. I will await further developments.”