Federal District Judge Mark E. Fuller was controversial even before he was arrested on allegations of beating his wife last year.
The Alabama judge was criticized for sitting on cases brought by the government even as his aviation company was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded business. Appointed by a Republican, he was denounced for putting a former Democratic governor in manacles after a corruption conviction.
He was the talk of the courthouse for having an extramarital affair with his courtroom assistant, and for his messy public divorce.
Fuller, 56, is now battling bipartisan calls to resign over a fight he had seven months ago with the same former courtroom assistant, whom he’d married. The argument started after she accused Fuller of cheating on her with his law clerk.
Adding to Fuller’s problems was that a few weeks after he was arrested, video was released of NFL star running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancee unconscious, putting a national spotlight on spousal abuse. The Baltimore Ravens dropped Rice.
“If an NFL player can lose his job because of domestic violence, then a federal judge should definitely not be allowed to keep his lifetime appointment to the federal bench,” said Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.).
Sewell and both of Alabama’s Republican senators, along with other members of the state’s congressional delegation, have called on Fuller to step down.
Fuller’s judicial career now rests largely with a five-judge review panel that has investigated his behavior and is expected to release its findings this month. A House of Representatives committee is gearing up for possible impeachment hearings against Fuller, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 2002.
Retired Alabama federal Judge U.W. Clemon, who as chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham dealt with similar ethical issues, said that Fuller’s constitutional appointment may not be enough to save his job.
When a judge’s behavior results in him “being thrown in jail like a common criminal, that’s not within the conduct that is condoned by the Constitution,” Clemon said.
Kelli Fuller, the former court assistant who was divorced from Fuller after the incident, has not spoken in public about what happened at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Atlanta last August. But her version is amply represented in police files.
“He’s beating on me! Please help me,” Kelli Fuller pleaded to a police dispatcher, who called for an ambulance and could be heard telling a co-worker, “I can hear him hitting her now.”
The policeman who entered the hotel room found her with “visible lacerations to her mouth and forehead” and said the room smelled of alcohol.
“Mrs. Fuller stated when she confronted him about their issues, he pulled her hair and threw her to the ground and kicked her,” the police report said. “Mrs. Fuller also stated she was dragged around the room and Mr. Fuller hit her in the mouth several times with his hands.”
Judge Fuller was taken to jail, where he spent the night on a charge of misdemeanor battery. But he avoided a criminal record by agreeing to a pretrial diversion program, including a drug and alcohol evaluation and 24 sessions of domestic violence counseling.
Nebraska federal court Judge Richard Kopf, who writes a blog about judicial issues, called it “a sweet deal.”
Fuller, who is no longer hearing cases pending the resolution of the committee’s review, hasn’t commented on the specifics of the incident, but he issued a brief statement of regret. He called the incident “very embarrassing” and said he would be “working to resolve these issues” with his family.
In a recent interview, Fuller’s lawyer and longtime friend Barry Ragsdale spoke at length about the incident for the first time.
Ragsdale said Kelli Fuller had become upset over an “imagined” affair she believed her husband of two years was having with a law clerk.
Ragsdale said Fuller acted in self-defense. He said when Fuller refused to fire the law clerk, his wife “throws a glass at him and rushes at him while he is lying in bed” in his underwear watching television.
“He reaches up, defending himself, and grabs her by the hair and the shoulder,” Ragsdale said. “Standing up, he throws her on the bed. She rolls off onto the floor and got a bloody lip. He never intended to hurt her.”
In his Birmingham office, Ragsdale showed a loose-leaf notebook with crime-scene photos showing Kelli Fuller’s injuries, including several small cuts and bruises and a fat lower lip. He said they were taken less than an hour after the incident.
She declined to go to a hospital, according to the police report. Ragsdale said Fuller “never hit, punched, slapped or kicked his wife.”
The five-judge committee heard three days of testimony last month in a closed evidentiary hearing that Ragsdale said was “essentially a trial.”
Ragsdale says the committee is considering several allegations, including whether Fuller abused his wife and, if so, whether it was part of a pattern of abuse; whether he had an affair with his clerk; and whether the earlier extramarital relationship with Kelli Fuller violated court rules or judicial ethics.
Ragsdale says there is no rule at the District Court in Montgomery prohibiting relationships with employees.
Finally, Ragsdale said, the judges are looking at questions of spousal abuse and alcohol and prescription drug abuse raised in Fuller’s 2012 divorce from his first wife, Lisa.
Because of his lifetime appointment, the committee cannot force him off the bench, but it can reprimand him and ask him to resign or grant him early retirement. It can also recommend impeachment.
Kopf, the conservative judge and blogger, wrote that he opposed impeachment because “Fuller’s despicable conduct was nevertheless private, and it was unconnected to the performance of his judicial duties.”
G. Douglas Jones, a former U.S. attorney in Birmingham, said Fuller should step down given the damage done to his reputation and credibility.
“No one in a criminal or civil case would feel they would get a fair shake,” Jones said.