Dial "M" for Misconduct

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If Aaron Spelling has taught the world anything, it's that a story doesn't need redeeming social value to keep us riveted by the details. Plot is key; so are passion and powerful people behaving their worst when the stakes matter the most. As a craftsman, Spelling would no doubt appreciate the tortuous tale of Susan Chrzanowski, a Michigan judge and divorce who, over the course of a year, journeyed from pillar of the community to key witness at her married lover's murder trial and then to focal point of public rancor over the deceit and misconduct produced by the desires that lurk beneath black robes.

Judge Chrzanowski, 34, and Michael Fletcher, 31, started working together in 1997, when Fletcher, fresh from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, was her clerk in Michigan's 37th District Court, in Warren. After Fletcher passed the bar exam, Chrzanowski, by now his lover, helped jump-start his practice by naming him the court-appointed attorney for 56 indigent defendants, giving him three times as much in fees as the court's three other judges gave him combined. What's more, she ruled on those cases without revealing to the opposing counsel her relationship with Fletcher. It's not uncommon for judges, especially elected judges like Chrzanowski, to send a little business to their friends. It is vastly uncommon--in fact, profoundly unethical--for judges to assign loads of cases to lawyers they're sleeping with, and then preside over those suits.

The cozy arrangement lasted until Aug. 16, 1999, when Fletcher made a 911 call from his home in Hazel Park to report that his manicurist wife Leann, who was one month pregnant with the couple's second child, had shot and killed herself with his Colt .45. While examining the scene, police discovered in a closet a brown folder stuffed with drippy correspondence from Chrzanowski. It didn't take long to put the pieces together. At his murder trial last June, prosecutors surmised that Fletcher, having learned of Leann's pregnancy two days before her death, feared his mistress would leave him if she discovered he had lied when he said he was no longer sleeping with his wife. So Fletcher shot Leann in the head (after having sex with her), and tried to make it look like a self-inflicted wound. Fletcher was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Police never linked Chrzanowski to the killing, but she has had to answer for other sins. In the hours after the murder, the judge misled police. She told them the affair with Fletcher had lasted just a few weeks and had been over for months, although it had lasted more than a year and was still going on; in fact, she had had sex with Fletcher on the eve of the murder. Two days later, Chrzanowski apologized and set the record straight, claiming she had been in shock during the initial interview. But her behavior had caught the attention of Michigan's judicial tenure commission, a watchdog of the judiciary. In April, the jtc brought misconduct charges against Chrzanowski, and she was suspended, with pay, from her post.

When venerable former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Charles Levin, cousin of Senator Carl Levin, was appointed to study the case and make a recommendation to the JTC, Chrzanowski appeared to be in deep trouble. Levin sorted through the evidence and then, amazingly, determined that Chrzanowski had done nothing worthy of removal--or even suspension--from the bench. Levin wrote that channeling cases to "close personal friends" was a common practice and that he couldn't punish Chrzanowski for behavior that "other judges have and...will continue to indulge in." As for the misstatements to police, Levin concluded the judge had not lied because she had "no deliberate intent to deceive."

Levin's opinion provoked outrage from lawyers and editorialists alike. "Everyone should have a level playing field when they walk into a courtroom," said JTC executive director Paul Fischer. "How can it be fair when the judge is sleeping with one of the attorneys?" Said New York University legal ethicist Stephen Gillers: "There's no way of soft-pedaling Chrzanowski's conduct, no way of defending it.'' Wrote the Detroit Free Press: "There's surely something wrong with a system that can't hold [Chrzanowski] accountable." The judge's supporters are few. In her own defense, Chrzanowski released a statement to TIME last week in which she claimed to be a victim of "media hype."

This week the JTC will meet for a one-day hearing to consider Levin's report and make its final recommendation to the Michigan Supreme Court, which can do whatever it wishes, from exonerating Chrzanowski to removing her from the bench. If the judge manages to survive, her 2002 re-election campaign is sure to be one for the books.