Vermont’s Judicial Conduct Board has publicly reprimanded Bernard Lewis, who served as Orange County’s probate judge from 2002 until earlier this year.
In an order issued late last week, the board wrote that Lewis had violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by failing to dispose of cases “promptly, efficiently and fairly.” Lewis formally accepted the reprimand instead of fighting it at a hearing that was scheduled to take place in October.
At issue was the judge’s handling of a nearly decade-long family feud over the guardianship of an elderly Newbury woman, Miriam Thomas, who has since died. As Seven Days reported last year, three of her children had accused a fourth of abusing his power as her court-appointed guardian and depleting her assets by more than $1 million.
In its reprimand, the board wrote that Lewis’ “repeated failure to address and decide issues” that came before him had cost the aggrieved siblings “significant attorney fees” and wasted both parties’ time and resources.
“The chronic failure to hold the guardian accountable for his actions with respect to his obligations while allowing him to pay himself enormous amounts of money over 7 ½ years, despite repeated filings that brought such issues to the Court’s attention, exemplifies a failure to dispose of issues fairly,” the board wrote.
Lewis declined to comment, saying only, “There’s two sides of every story.”
The judge’s decision not to seek reelection last year may have spared him a heavier penalty. “The board does have the authority to take more severe sanctions if it were a sitting judge, but Judge Lewis is no longer presiding,” said Andrew Maass, the Judicial Conduct Board chair.
The Lewis case is tied to a dispute that dates to December 2009, when Thomas was found to be suffering from dementia and her children began fighting over which should serve as her court-appointed guardian. Over the objections of Bruce Thomas and two siblings, Lewis named Paul Thomas to the role in January 2010.
According to the board’s chronology of the incident, which was agreed to by Lewis and Bruce, Paul repeatedly failed to properly file accounting documents and exceeded his authority as guardian. He paid himself more than $250,000 for the work as of 2016, the board found.
Bruce believes the damage was far greater. He said his brother cost his mother’s estate roughly $1.2 million. The estate was valued at more than $2.4 million in 2010.
“The Guardian paid himself enormous amounts of money during the seven and [a] half years he was in control of the estate,” the board found. “The majority of those payments were of no benefit to the ward.”
Throughout that time, Bruce and his siblings lodged regular objections with Lewis. They complained to the board about the judge’s conduct as early as 2013, but the board did not take action.
Paul declined to comment for this story. His attorney, John Page, said that Paul did not agree with the board’s chronology and noted that it had not held a hearing to take evidence.
“[A]ny published statement to the effect that Paul Thomas received excessive compensation as his mother’s guardian would be inaccurate, or at least unproven,” Page said in a written statement. “That issue has yet to be adjudicated and therefore remains mere allegation until the court hears all the evidence and makes a ruling.”
Bruce said he was relieved that the board took action against Lewis, calling its conclusions “quite damning.” Though he would have preferred to see the judge face greater sanctions, he said, “After all that we’ve been through here, it’s actually quite meaningful to have Judge Lewis finally admit what’s going on.”