MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A judge once considered for a prominent federal appointment has resigned amid investigations of possible judicial and sexual improprieties, including allegations that he spanked male inmates in a private courthouse room.
The resignation of Circuit Judge Herman Thomas ends what was once viewed as one of Alabama's most promising legal careers, although his legal problems continue.
"We do have a criminal investigation going on," Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson said after Thomas' resignation Monday.
Thomas had been suspended with pay since March when a state judicial panel filed the first of a series of charges accusing him of unduly helping relatives and friends with their legal troubles and taking cases away from other judges — without permission — to change the defendants' legal status or reduce sentences.
Thomas resigned shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, which was the deadline for judicial prosecutors to file any additional charges before his Oct. 29 trial.
His resignation probably means there will be no trial before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary because the harshest punishment it can hand down is removal from office — an action that last happened in 2003 when Alabama's Ten Commandments judge, Chief Justice Roy Moore, got kicked out of office.
"While I do not believe that I ever intentionally violated any canon of judicial ethics, I recognize that the controversy surrounding me has been disruptive and unproductive for the life of this community," Thomas said in a resignation statement.
Accused of taking inmates to private room
After the ethics charges were filed against Thomas, allegations arose that he had removed several male inmates from the Mobile jail and taken them to a private room in the courthouse, where he spanked them.
The president of the local NAACP chapter accused investigators of coercing inmates to make allegations against Thomas, who is black.
Also, a six-year-old lawsuit surfaced in which an inmate accused the judge of offering to provide help with inmates' cases in return for sexual favors.
"Judge Thomas categorically denies all of that," defense attorney Dave Boyd said.
Judicial prosecutors did not file any additional charges Monday involving the allegations of spankings or the inmate's lawsuit, which was dismissed by one of Thomas' fellow judges shortly after it was filed.
Tyson, the district attorney in Mobile, said his investigation is separate from the judicial ethics probe, and he had been unaware of the inmate's suit until recently. "That lawsuit is now part of our investigation," Tyson said.
'A judge ... all citizens will be proud of'
Thomas, 46, grew up in Mobile and returned home after law school at Florida State University to become an assistant district attorney. He became a district judge in 1990, with the pledge, "I will be a judge the judges of the 13th Judicial Circuit, my family and friends, and all citizens will be proud of."
Thomas' distinctive bow ties helped him stand out in the county courthouse, and in 1999, he became a circuit judge.
Two years before that, some of Alabama's top Democrats recommended President Clinton appoint Thomas as the first black federal judge in south Alabama. The background check on Thomas dragged on for months, and Clinton never made a formal nomination.
One of Thomas' earliest advocates was Joe Reed, chairman of the black wing of the Alabama Democratic Party. Reed said Thomas ran into opposition from some leaders within the American Bar Association, but there were no allegations of improprieties back then. Reed said he hated to see what had happened to Thomas' career.
"It's so unfortunate for him," he said Tuesday.
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