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Montana panel looks at sanctioning judge for 30-day rape sentence

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - A Montana panel that oversees jurists is seeking to discipline a judge for sentencing an ex-teacher who raped a 14-year-old girl who later killed herself to just 30 days in prison and for declaring the girl partly to blame in her own rape, documents showed on Tuesday.

The Montana Judicial Standards Commission has found that District Judge G. Todd Baugh committed judicial misconduct when he imposed the light sentence last August against former Billings high school teacher Stacey Rambold, 54.

The panel said in a complaint filed with the state Supreme Court that Baugh undermined public confidence in the judiciary, created an appearance of impropriety and "justified the unlawful sentence by blaming the child victim," according to papers from the commission.

Commission attorney Malin Stearns Johnson, who wrote the document, said the judge's conduct warranted disciplinary action but she did not say in the complaint if she was seeking a reprimand or Baugh's ouster.

Under its rules, the commission has the option of holding its own hearing and making its own decision, or the case can be turned over to the justices on the state Supreme Court with the commission's recommendation for reprimand.

Baugh, who has said he would not run for re-election when his term expires at the end of the year, could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday. He has until later this month to respond to the allegations, according to commission rules.

He ignited a firestorm of criticism last year when he ordered Rambold to be incarcerated for just 30 days for the 2007 rape of his student, Cherice Moralez, who killed herself in 2010.

In remarks that intensified an ensuing outcry from women's groups, Baugh commented during the sentencing hearing that the teenager seemed older than her years and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as her instructor.

Johnson said the judicial panel received hundreds of complaints about Baugh after his remarks and the sentence he imposed on Rambold - technically 15 years in prison with all but 31 days suspended and credit given for one day served.

"Through his overly lenient and unlawful sentence, inappropriate rationale, and subsequent public comments, Judge Baugh has eroded public confidence in the judiciary and created an appearance of impropriety," Johnson said in the legal filing.

The Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women, which lodged a complaint against Baugh with the judicial panel, will continue its campaign to have the judge removed from the bench, said president Marian Bradley.

"This is a huge victory," she said of the panel's legal filing. "But we want everyone to know we are still fighting for justice for Cherice and for all victims of sexual assault."

The commission has filed seven formal complaints with the Montana Supreme Court against judges since 1991, documents show.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Osterman)

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