Wake District Court judge resigns

ablythe@newsobserver.com May 19, 2012 

— Kristin Ruth, a Wake County District Court judge for 13 years, stepped down from the bench Friday amid an SBI investigation into her handling of DWI cases.

Ruth submitted a two-sentence notice to Gov. Bev Perdue, delivered by hand Friday, that stated: “I hereby resign my office as District Court Judge of Wake County. It has been an honor to serve the citizens of Wake County.”

In a statement issued by her attorney, Joe Zeszotarski, Ruth elaborated on why she chose to step aside nearly three months after the State Bureau of Investigation began a probe of how she dealt with at least a dozen DWI cases.

Ruth said she had trusted Raleigh lawyer James Crouch, who she now thinks was untruthful with her. “I trusted the wrong person,” she said.

The SBI inquiry began in February after prosecutors alerted Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby to problems with a DWI case handled by Crouch, who deals with a high volume of traffic cases. Willoughby looked into the matter himself and flagged a dozen questionable DWI cases in which Ruth’s signature was on orders changing conviction dates. Crouch was the attorney on each case.

Willoughby alerted Donald Stephens, Wake’s chief resident Superior Court judge, who then contacted the SBI, which is continuing its probe.

On Friday, Willoughby declined to comment on Ruth’s resignation, saying it would be improper while the investigation is ongoing.

Ruth has a reputation among Raleigh lawyers and friends as a kind, community-spirited judge with a willingness to accommodate defendants in the hubbub of a busy courthouse. That obliging attitude, her friends and colleagues have said, likely put her at the center of the SBI investigation.

Crouch has declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations. Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh attorney representing him, said Friday that Ruth’s resignation and statement are “sad on many levels.” But because an investigation is in process, it would be inappropriate for him or Crouch to comment at this point, he said.

Violation of trust

Ruth, though, had few kind words for Crouch in the statement issued by her attorney.

“As a result of the investigation, it has come to my attention that I signed numerous orders for Mr. Crouch that I should not have signed,” Ruth stated. “I must admit that, because I trusted Mr. Crouch, I did not read the orders that were presented to me. Had I read the orders, I would not have signed them. Mr. Crouch, as an officer of the court, should not have presented inappropriate orders to me for signature.”

Her statement further contends that Crouch told her shortly after she learned about some of the facts related to the orders that he had violated her trust and that he would clear her name with the district attorney.

“To date, he has taken no such action,” Ruth said. “As a result of my inattention in failing to read the orders before I signed them, I believe my resignation is necessary to maintain the integrity of the judicial system. I trusted the wrong person, but that does not excuse not reading the orders before I signed them.”

In an interview earlier this year, Laith Qomaq said he called Crouch after being charged with a DWI in March 2010 because many of his friends bragged that Crouch had gotten them out of drunk driving charges. “He told me he was a hotshot and that cops were scared of him,” Qomaq said.

How DWIs work

DWI convictions carry heavy penalties. Those convicted lose their licenses for a year. But if a defendant appeals his DWI conviction to Superior Court, that license suspension doesn’t kick in until the case is formally resolved.

Often, as in the case with the 12 cases being investigated, defendants eventually give up their appeal in Superior Court and head back to District Court for sentencing. The year of suspension is supposed to kick in when the defendant returns to District Court for sentencing.

But in the cases being investigated, the documents showed that Ruth overruled another judge’s conviction date. The new date is many months, sometimes a year, prior. The effect of those decisions could have meant a sparing of a license suspension or a limited time without a license.

The Division of Motor Vehicles, which is alerted to convictions that result in license suspensions, noticed an irregularity in some cases and notified Willoughby.

Willoughby already was looking into the handling of one of Crouch’s case after his assistant district attorneys complained. As the district attorney investigated the ones flagged by DMV, Ruth’s signature was on many of them.

“Although my misguided trust of Mr. Crouch has resulted in my resignation, it should not reflect on the integrity of the judicial system of Wake County or the State of North Carolina,” Ruth said in her statement. “I accept my responsibility in contributing to this problem, and feel it necessary, although with great regret, to resign.”

The standard process for replacing District Court judges who step down mid-term is that the local bar elects three nominees and the governor selects a new judge from those candidates.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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