SJC removes Barnstable clerk for abusing office
Robert Powers is first clerk-magistrate dismissed for cause in 14 years
In a highly unusual move, the Supreme Judicial Court has ordered the removal of the Barnstable District Court clerk-magistrate for consistently arriving late for work; yelling at litigants, attorneys, employees, and even judges; and threatening people who appear before him.
Robert E. Powers, a West Roxbury probation officer who was appointed to his post by former governor Mitt Romney, had been relieved of his duties and transferred to Taunton District Court pending the outcome of the probe into the allegations. The Committee on Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Courts recommended last fall that Powers be removed, and the SJC agreed.
“We do not reach this conclusion lightly; we recognize that removal ‘strips the individual of the enjoyment of a position of distinction’ to which he had been appointed by the Governor and approved by the Governor’s Council,” Justice Ralph Gants wrote in the unanimous ruling. “After consideration of the record presented by the committee and after hearing, we conclude that sufficient cause is shown for the removal of Powers from the office of clerk-magistrate of the Barnstable District Court and that the public good requires his removal.”
According to testimony, Powers was confronted numerous times over the years about his tardiness and his abusive demeanor toward workers in his office as well as court employees and contractors such as social workers and public defenders. In one instance, in 2010, Judge James O’Neill, the presiding judge at Barnstable, met with Powers to tell him he would have to “roll up his sleeves” and be on time after one of his assistant clerks had been promoted to another court. Powers, according to O’Neill, became enraged.
“Powers admitted that he raised his voice and, in effect, told the judge, ‘Who are you to come into my office and tell me what to do,’ and reminded the judge that he had been appointed by the Governor to be the clerk and would decide how the clerk’s office would be run,” Gants wrote in the opinion.
In another instance, Powers called a man a “coward” when the man tried to explain how he was having difficulty controlling his teenaged son, who was facing driving without a license charges at a show cause hearing, since his wife, the boy’s mother, died of cancer.
Powers was also found to have threatened to alter tapes so his behavior would be edited out. Investigators also found that he did not consistently deposit funds from payments made to the court in a timely manner, making it difficult to determine if any money was missing.Even after he was told by higher-ups to clean up his act, Powers continued to show up late for work, or sometimes not appear at all. During CommonWealth’s investigation into clerk-magistrates, we checked Powers’ office and parking space at the Barnstable court as well as his house in West Roxbury multiple times over the course of several weeks. We found his courthouse space unoccupied or with someone else’s car in the marked space. We also photographed both his cars 70 miles from the courthouse, in his West Roxbury driveway, during business hours. Because the courts are exempt from public records requests, we were unable to determine if Powers was on vacation, out sick, or simply not at work. Calls to his office at the time were not returned.
During his disciplinary hearing, Powers claimed part of his difficulty was that he suffered from multiple sclerosis but he provided no medical proof to back the claim. The committee hearing officers dismissed that defense and Gants said the record overwhelmingly supported Powers’ removal.