In a letter dated Friday, Putnam Superior Court Judge Robert J. Lowe said he was terminating Charles Bridges' employment as a public defender effective at close of business that day.
"This is not due to any lack of performance of your duties, but is necessitated by the fact that your spouse has commenced employment with the Putnam County Prosecutor's Office this past Monday," Lowe wrote. "I believe that your continued employment as public defender simultaneous with your wife's employment creates a real and substantial risk of the appearance of impropriety and will undermine public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system in Putnam County."
Bridges holds no ill will toward Lowe.
"Rules that govern judges are exceedingly strict," he said. "One of the canons in the (Indiana Rules of Court) Code of Judicial Conduct says a judge has to insure against even the appearance of impropriety," Bridges said. "(Lowe) certainly didn't do anything that wasn't within his right or authority."
Bridges' wife, Tracy, is employed by the Putnam County Prosecutor's Office as a victim's assistance coordinator. The job is largely administrative, and Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter said the person who had the job before Tracy Bridges "never went to court or testified" in any case.
Bridges said he asked Lowe what the exact conflict of interest would be.
"He couldn't tell me," Bridges said. "He just had a gut feeling and couldn't articulate it."
Lowe said in his letter he had been given no advance notice that Bridges' wife would be taking a job in the prosecutor's office. If he had been apprised, he said, he would have told Bridges what the outcome would be. He also said Bridges should not be surprised by Lowe's action, as "I just recently discussed with you how I view these situations when your wife applied for or inquired about positions with the Putnam County Probation Office and Putnam County Community Corrections."
"This is not to case any blame for what has occurred," Lowe wrote. "I understand that you have no control over your wife or the prosecutor. Of course, neither do I, but I do still have my obligations under the Code, and this is the only option available to me."
Under Indiana Code, Lowe has final say over who is hired to be a public defender in his court.
Lowe acknowledged Bookwalter had offered to make sure Bridges' wife did not deal with any cases Bridges would handle. However, Lowe said in his letter, copies of which were sent to Judge Matthew Headley, Bookwalter, the staff of Putnam Superior Court, the other Putnam County public defenders and the Putnam County Bar Association, that he didn't believe such a concession would "change the problem presented by the appearance to the public, even is it is believed that it is really possible to accomplish that in such an office."
Bookwalter said he did not perceive Bridges holding the public defender's position while Bridges' wife was working in Bookwalter's office as a conflict.
"My understanding was that (Bridges) had gotten it approved by the state ethics commission," he said. "To me, that cleared it. I guess Judge Lowe disagrees with the judicial qualification commission."
Meg Babcock, counsel to the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications, said she had spoken to Bridges, and that she didn't "understand what the conflict of interest" Lowe spoke of might be.
"But it's not my call," she said.
Lowe said the purpose of sending the copies of the letter to the people and offices he did was two-fold -- it was sent to inform people Bridges had been let go as a public defender and to put out a call to individuals who might be interested in taking his place.
"As there has been no opportunity to plan for this turn of events, there is a danger of disruption to services being provided to indigent criminal defendants, and a further resulting danger of an increased backlog generally," Lowe wrote.
Bridges hopes those things don't happen.
"If anyone were to have to spend one day longer in jail than they had to, I have a problem with that," he said.