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Thursday, April 18, 2024 | Back issues
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6th Circuit Affirms Free-Speech Suit Against Judge

(CN) - A fired court employee can sue the chief judge who ordered her termination in his personal capacity, but the court and the judge, in his professional capacity, are immune from federal claims the 6th Circuit ruled.

When Mark Somers became chief judge of the 19th district court in Dearborn, Mich., in 2006, he commenced employee evaluations and announced plans to fire Julie Pucci, a 15-year employee.

Pucci sued the court and Somers, both personally and professionally, claiming that Somers had retaliated against her because she had complained to state court officials about Somers' use of religious language on the bench.

Somers argued that he fired Pucci over her job performance, but the outgoing chief judge testified that "that he thought Somers terminated Pucci for personal reasons and because of her unmarried relationship with [William] Hultgren," another judge on the court, according to the Cincinnati appeals court ruling.

Writing for the 6th Circuit's three-judge panel, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote that the lower court should have awarded summary judgment on the basis of immunity to the court and Somers in his official capacity, but she affirmed that Somers personally is not immune from Pucci's claims.

While Pucci was living with Hultgren in 2003, Somers was elected to the court.

Several court employees, including Pucci, complained about Somers' use of religious themes.

The chief judge at the time, Leo Foran, testified that in his brief ten-month tenure as chief district judge, he received about 15 complaints from local attorneys about Somers interjecting his religious beliefs in the court.

Somers told defendants that marijuana was "the devil's weed or Satan's surge," handed out stiffer sentences to Muslims who committed offenses during Ramadan, wrote Bible quotes on court letterhead and asked litigants if they were churchgoers, according to the ruling.

When Pucci was on track for a promotion to deputy court administrator, Somers began to lobby aggressively against the Pucci and argued that her relationship with Hultgren constituted nepotism.

Somers fired Pucci as soon as he replaced Foran as chief judge, which Pucci said violated her rights to free speech and due process.

A Detroit federal judge had found that the court and Somers in his official capacity were not entitled to immunity, and that Pucci's claims survived summary judgment.

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