Witnesses testify against judge accused of inappropriate behavior in court

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — The second day of a local judge’s disciplinary hearing featured testimony from the first of 63 witnesses scheduled to take the stand.

District Court Judge Rafael Ovalles faces allegations of sexual harassment, abusive treatment, and failure to maintain professional dignity in court. The judge and his attorneys dispute these claims. Allegations include that Ovalles mishandled the mental health calendar, demeaned attorneys, and at times, had his pants unbuttoned or completely off in chambers.

On Tuesday, Public Defender Rebecca Aitchison took the stand in front of the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline.

Aitchison testified that she believed there were specific instances when Ovalles treated her – as a female attorney – differently than her male counterparts.

In an audio recording, Ovalles could be heard instructing Aitchison to give the court notice prior to leaving the courtroom. When she failed to do so, Ovalles was heard reprimanding her.

The public defender testified that the judge was never heard on the recording asking for male lawyers to do the same. One male attorney is heard asking for permission to leave the courtroom, but Aitchison testified she believed the lawyer did that in response to Ovalles’ orders to her. Ovalles is never heard proactively asking that male attorney to advise the court of his departure.

Aitchison also testified that she took issue with the way Ovalles called for cases to be heard before she was able to meet with clients. He could be heard on the audio recording telling her in open court that she was unprepared. She classified the behavior as inappropriate and said it continued for nine months.

Another public defender, Andrew McElroy, testified that no other judge he worked with called for cases in the manner Ovalles did.

“It greatly affected the entire process and slowed down the entire judicial process,” said McElroy from the stand. He said it had “extreme” adverse effects on his clients. McElroy also said he saw Ovalles storm off the bench at times when he appeared to become frustrated.

In additional testimony from other attorneys and a court officer, witnesses said Ovalles often demanded eye contact from those in his courtroom. One attorney testified that Ovalles told her she blinked too much. The court officer said Ovalles told him to maintain eye contact with him throughout proceedings.

Witnesses were called Tuesday by attorney Marc DeSisto, representing the commission and essentially acting as a prosecutor.

Ovalles was appointed to the bench in 2005 by Governor Don Carcieri. He has been relieved from his duties with pay since December 2015 as the investigation proceeds.

His future as a judge will be determined by this hearing process, which is expected to take multiple weeks.