COLUMBUS — Clark County Common Pleas Judge Douglas Rastatter dropped his head in his hands and sobbed Tuesday after a disciplinary hearing panel dismissed a six-count complaint of judicial misconduct against him.
The three-member Board of Commission on Grievances and Discipline of the Ohio Supreme Court dismissed the case after a two-day hearing.
Complainants described Rastatter as rude, biased, vindictive, disrespectful to attorneys and someone who ruled without regard for the law and higher courts.
Rastatter testified that he struggled to adjust to the bench. He declined to comment after the hearing, but his attorney George Jonson said he and co-counsel Lisa Zaring were pleased with the ruling.
“I think they reached the right result, and I couldn’t be any happier if I won the lottery,” Jonson said.
Jonson had only asked the panel to dismiss two counts in the complaint prior to the decision to end the whole case.
The Ohio State Bar Association accused Rastatter of failing to follow the law, failing to uphold the integrity of the judiciary, engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, lacking decorum and acting in a manner that does not promote confidence in the judiciary.
The allegations, brought to the association by attorneys Richard Mayhall and John R. Butz, could have resulted in a range of sanctions for Rastatter, including permanent disbarment.
Rastatter spent more than three and a half hours on the witness stand Tuesday, answering questions about his actions in six cases he presided over after taking the bench in January 2005.
His testimony followed former Clark County Prosecutor Stephen A. Schumaker, who is now the current deputy attorney general for law enforcement, and Clark County Assistant Prosecutor Andrew Picek.
Rastatter denied all misconduct charges, but admitted to struggling early in his career as judge and agreed with testimony by Schumaker and Picek that his cases have been singled out by Clark County Appeals Court Judge Thomas Grady.
“I believe I have not” committed any ethical violations, Rastatter said.
He told the court that his transition from an assistant Clark County prosecutor to judge was not smooth, but that he’s learned since his early years as judge.
During his testimony he said in certain cases he could have responded to attorneys’ objections differently, allowed attorneys to speak to him after certain rulings, and sequestered jurors in a capital murder trial instead of moving forward with a mitigation hearing.
“I think some of these things were growing pains. Attorneys learning to react to me and me learning to react to them,” Rastatter said.
He adamantly denied disregarding the law and ignoring rulings by the appeals court and Ohio Supreme Court.
In 2008, Rastatter sentenced Jon A. Watkins to 18 years on kidnapping and robbery charges. In 2010, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the decision, saying the facts did not support a maximum sentence.
According to the complaint, Rastatter responded to the appeals court mandate “I can’t just do something that I don’t think is right; and if I think the facts in the record do justify maximum consecutive sentences, I think that’s not just within my discretion, but it’s my duty to impose sentences I see fit.”
Rastatter testified he re-sentenced Watkins to 18 years and provided additional information or justification to the higher court.
“I certainly didn’t want to disregard a mandate. I was trying to do what I thought they wanted me to do,” Rastatter testified.
Schumaker and Picek told the panel cases Rastatter presides over are targeted by Grady.
“If Judge Grady was on a panel for an appeal involving Judge Rastatter, we weren’t going to get a fair shake,” Schumaker said.
Grady declined to comment after the hearing.
The complaint against Rastatter comes six years after Rastatter had a confrontation with Mayhall and Butz, who were defense attorneys in the Jason Dean capital murder trial.
During the hearing, Rastatter and Schumaker accused Butz and Mayhall of “manipulating the court” and attempting to get the judge removed from the case.
Rastatter at one point addressed the men “red-faced” and said he had concerns about their actions. After Dean was sentenced to death, Rastatter held the two in contempt of court and fined them $2,000 each.
The contempt charges against Mayhall and Butz was dismissed and so, too, was Dean’s sentence as an appeals court found Rastatter “harbored bias against defense counsel that was manifest through his comments and rulings during the trial.”
Dean was recently re-sentenced to death on murder charges before a retired judge.
Mayhall said he felt threatened by Rastatter during the trial and testified that Rastatter had left the bench as he had objected to a ruling in a separate case.
After the judicial misconduct complaint against Rastatter was dismissed, Mayhall would only say: “I respect the panel’s decision.”
Rastatter declined comment, but his father, Martin, said his son prays for Mayhall and Butz daily and also prays for the people who appear in his courtroom and are sentenced to prison.
With tears in his eyes, Martin Rastatter admitted, however, that the complaint took its toll on the family.
“It’s been extremely difficult on him, the kids and the family.”