Ten days away from the possibility of a suspension that could remove Curtis DeLapp from the bench for months, no one has much idea exactly what is to come next for the beleaguered district judge.
When Douglas Combs, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, filed his petition earlier this month claiming that DeLapp was guilty of “Gross neglect of duty, oppression in office and other grounds specified by the Legislature,” an Aug. 20 deadline was set that would either see DeLapp voluntarily submit to a suspension or respond to the suspension request with “any exhibits and affidavits” in his defense.
DeLapp, who is district judge in both Washington and Nowata counties, came under fire in March after The Frontier documented a string of cases where he had ordered people to jail for seemingly minor cases of courtroom misbehavior such as talking in court. In one case profiled by The Frontier, DeLapp ordered a woman jailed without bond for six months after the woman allegedly talked in court.
In Combs’ petition, the Chief Justice laid out a number of allegations against DeLapp, including that he had falsified court records in order to justify a six-month jail term against a woman who had allegedly spoken out loud in his courtroom during a hearing.
DeLapp, he wrote, had issued “in excess” of 200 direct contempt citations ordering jail time since 2016. His “use and application of direct contempt ignored each individual’s due process rights,” Combs wrote. “The routine denial of individuals’ access to justice constitutes oppression in office.”
Further, Combs wrote, DeLapp’s “complete disregard of applicable laws and fundamental rights demonstrates a gross neglect of duty.”
“The pattern of conduct demonstrates (DeLapp’s) lack of temperament to serve as a judge.”
The first two cases Combs noted in his order are both cases The Frontier covered in March.
Regardless of what happens Aug. 20, DeLapp will face a hearing — or pre-trial conference — on Sept. 12 at the Oklahoma Supreme Court, followed by a trial on Oct. 15. He could also resign by any of those dates, though he is currently in a runoff election with challenger Linda Thomas that will be held in November.
Phone calls to both DeLapp and the Oklahoma Supreme Court have not been returned. A woman who answered the phone in an office for judges in Washington County said she “had no idea” if DeLapp planned to submit to the suspension — something that very rarely takes place in Oklahoma.
An Oklahoma judge hasn’t been removed from office since 2002 when Pushmataha County Associate District Judge Doyle E. Blythe was dismissed for “violating the Code of Judicial Ethics and conducting a pattern of oppression,” according to a story in The Oklahoman. Blythe had improperly supported a sheriff’s candidate and was also accused of conducting “euthanasia hearings” at a local hospital, the paper wrote at the time.
Blythe was later acquitted on manslaughter charges after he allegedly struck a bicycle-riding child who died.
Since then other judges have faced removal from the bench, but have resigned instead. Perhaps the most famous case was former Creek County District Judge Donald Thompson, who was found to have been masturbating with a penis pump during hearings there.
Thompson, who also faced a criminal case, resigned rather than be removed from bench.
Earlier this year a Marshall County district judge, Wallace Coppedge, faced scrutiny after sentencing a cook at a local church camp to probation after the man pleaded guilty to sodomizing a 13-year-old girl. The cook, 37-year-old Benjamin L. Petty, was given 15 years on probation rather than a prison sentence.
More than 100,000 people signed an online petition to have Coppedge removed from the bench (the prosecutor who agreed to Petty’s plea deal resigned,) and an effort by a state legislator to have Coppedge dismissed was placed on hold in February.
Despite the controversy, Coppedge drew no challengers for his judicial seat and will remain on the bench for another four years.
As for the future of DeLapp’s dockets — that’s somewhat up in the air. Employees of the Court Clerk’s Offices in both Nowata and Washington Counties told The Frontier they had been instructed to refer inquiries to the state’s Office of the Courts.
Jari Askins, Administrative Director of the Courts, told The Frontier that should DeLapp be suspended, his dockets would likely be covered by other judges in that district.
“It would be handled with existing personnel,” she said.
Should DeLapp resign or be removed from the bench, his replacement — presumably Linda Thomas, who would become the only candidate for that seat — wouldn’t take over until January.