A court watchdog group has demanded the resignation of Hennepin County Judge Stephen Aldrich, after the judge allegedly made a joke about murder during a hearing on a domestic violence restraining order.
WATCH, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit group, said Aldrich told the husband and wife involved in the case, "I've been married 45 years. We've never considered divorce, a few times murder, maybe."
Aldrich does not dispute making the comment, which apparently occurred during an Oct. 21 hearing to amend an order for protection brought by a woman against her husband.
WATCH sent a letter to the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards on Thursday, asking the board to remove Aldrich from his judicial seat. The group organizes monitors who attend court hearings to watch for judicial misconduct.
Marna Anderson, executive director of WATCH, says Aldrich's remarks were inappropriate, given the recent string of domestic abuse cases which have ended in death or severe injury, and violated standards for judicial conduct.
"It really minimizes the seriousness of the situation," Anderson said.
In a statement, Aldrich apologized.
"I am sorry for the offense occasioned by my comment. It has been taken somewhat out of context," said Aldrich. "I tried to use humor to lower the tension in the courtroom, and in retrospect I chose the wrong words."
The Minnesota Code of Judicial Conduct states, in part, "A judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others dealt with in an official capacity."
Anderson said that Aldrich has made other inappropriate comments in the past. In a January 2008 letter to the board, WATCH claimed that Aldrich told a man who was allegedly stabbed by his wife, "Maybe you should do the barbecuing from now on."
The letter also alleges that Aldrich told a defendant, "I don't know if you're stupid or evil."
David Paull, executive secretary of the Board on Judicial Standards, declined to comment on current or previous complaints against the judge, and said the board has not yet received WATCH's letter about the Oct. 21 incident.
The board does not have the power to remove a judge, Paull said, but it can make that recommendation to the Supreme Court, if warranted. He said the board will review the letter and determine whether further investigation or action is needed.
Attorneys for the husband and the wife defended the judge's remarks in a joint statement released Thursday.
"As stated by Judge Aldrich, they were a means to lower tension and for humor. The report by WATCH is out of context and is a non-issue," the statement said.
"In fact, the Petitioner seeking the Order for Protection reported that it made her laugh, cut the tension, and was the highlight of the hearing."
Robert Hajek, the husband's attorney, claimed that WATCH was using the incident to raise its media profile. "Frankly, what they've done is just silly," he said.
In his statement, Aldrich said the husband and wife have asked him to remain the judge in their cases.
Aldrich has served as a Hennepin County judge since 1997, working in civil, criminal and family court. His current term expires in January 2015.