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US judge in DUI rethinks quitting

Arrest, cross-dressing had caused an uproar

Judge Robert Somma cites a recent show of support. Judge Robert Somma cites a recent show of support.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / April 2, 2008

A federal judge said yesterday that he is reconsidering his resignation, two months after he was charged by New Hampshire authorities with drunken driving.

The arrest had caused an uproar, not only because a member of the judiciary had been accused of a crime, but because, as his lawyer confirmed yesterday, US Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Somma was wearing a woman's dress when he was involved in the car accident that triggered the charges.

Somma said in a letter to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly posted online yesterday that an outpouring of support from judges, lawyers, and others had led him to conclude, "contrary to my initial belief, that the media frenzy occasioned by this episode would not be an impediment to my continued service as a judge."

He said he had accepted full responsibility for his arrest and wished to apologize publicly for "that terrible lapse of judgment and the resultant controversy."

His lawyer, Robert B. Carpenter, of Wellesley, said in a telephone interview that Somma felt his attire during his arrest on Feb. 6 in Manchester had no bearing on his ability to work as a judge.

"It was the media frenzy, not the fact that he was arrested that evening wearing what he was wearing, that led him to believe that he might be unable to perform his duties," Carpenter said last night.

In his letter to the editor of the legal publication, Somma said that he has been speaking in recent weeks with officials at the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which appointed him to a 14-year renewable term in 2004, about his status and that he expects the discussions will continue.

Somma, who was arrested after he rear-ended a pickup truck at a traffic light, pleaded no contest in Manchester District Court on Feb. 13 to a first-offense misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated and agreed to pay $600 in fines and penalties. He also agreed to a yearlong suspension of his driver's license.

Gary H. Wente, circuit executive of the US Courts for the First Circuit, declined to discuss Somma's letter or Carpenter's comments. Wente had announced Somma's resignation on Feb. 15, saying the judge had called him from the Caribbean, where he had gone for a previously arranged vacation, and had resigned. At the time, Wente said, the judge had concluded that "it was best to put this behind him."

On Monday, Wente's office issued a one-sentence statement saying that Somma's resignation, scheduled for yesterday, would not become effective until May 15. The statement gave no explanation.

Wente said Somma has remained on paid leave since he tendered his resignation. He earns about $158,000 a year, Wente said.

Somma is one of five federal bankruptcy judges in Massachusetts. Several lawyers who appeared before him praised him in February, saying he was well-prepared, even-handed, and courteous.

Carpenter said that hundreds of lawyers have written the Court of Appeals and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly to support Somma.

Somma expressed gratitude for their support in his letter and wrote that "the unflattering portrait of me that emerged in the tabloid media is not at all reflective of me as a person or a judge."

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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