Edward Nottingham: "Naughty" non-investigation proceeds with relentless inertia

Almost two years ago -- fittingly, on April Fool's Day -- Sean Harrington filed a complaint with the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel requesting an investigation of U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham on the grounds of moral turpitude.

"Judge Naughty" had been much in the news that spring over reports of a drunken spending spree at the Diamond Cabaret strip club, purported porn in chambers, alleged patronage of an escort service -- and even an imperious encounter with a disabled attorney over the judge's usurpation of a handicapped parking spot.

Harrington, operator of the KnowYourCourts website and a savage critic of Colorado's judicial system, figured the OARC ought to look into possible disciplinary proceedings against Nottingham as a licensed (albeit then inactive) attorney. Call it a test case, since it's Harrington's assertion that OARC is highly selective about which badly behaving attorneys it chooses to punish and those it chooses to ignore.

So far, the OARC's handling of the Nottingham matter hasn't exactly proven him wrong.

A few weeks after filing his complaint, Harrington received a response from OARC staffer Louise Culberson-Smith, stating that "the investigation you request is not yet warranted," since Nottingham was already facing a judicial probe by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and possibly other investigations. But the Tenth Circuit's inquiry was shelved a few months later when Nottingham resigned his position on the bench, prompting Harrington to again request that OARC take action.

After some further delays, Culberson-Smith punted the matter "to our trial division for further investigation." In February 2009, assistant regulation counsel Lisa Frankel notified Harrington that the case was being placed "in abeyance," for reasons not disclosed.

Abeyance, of course, is one of those places nobody wants to be, halfway between Hiatus and Limbo. ("Abeyance: n. 1. temporary inactivity, cessation, or suspension.") The OARC may be entitled to place matters in abeyance if there's a pending related civil or criminal matter, but Harrington to this day has no inkling what that might be in Nottingham's case, since no charges ever resulted from his alleged exploits.

After another year of waiting, Harrington recently wrote to Frankel asking for an update on the status of his complaint. "This matter is still in abeyance," Frankel replied. "I will notify you if and when it is removed from abeyance." (The entire peculiar correspondence can be found here.)

Leaving Harrington to reflect: "Only one word comes to mind to describe what we appear to be witnessing from the OARC regarding its actions in multiple concurrent cases: 'lawless.'"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast