By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A Montana bar association on Friday defended its controversial decision to honor a former judge who was censured for suggesting that a 14-year-old girl was partly to blame for her rape by a teacher whom the judge sentenced to just 31 days.
The board of the Yellowstone Area Bar Association, a private organization of attorneys in the Billings area, said it voted to present retired state District Judge G. Todd Baugh with a lifetime achievement award for his decades of service.
“While we recognize that Judge Baugh made a very public mistake ... we feel his more than 30 years of service to our community and our profession is worthy of recognition,” the board said in a statement.
News that Baugh was to be honored galvanized women’s rights activists whose protests over Baugh’s courtroom remarks and his sentencing of the rape defendant led to his reprimand in July by the Montana Supreme Court.
Hundreds have joined a social media campaign launched this week, a prelude to a petition expected to be posted online this weekend demanding the bar association rescind its decision, said Marian Bradley, regional director in Montana of the National Organization for Women.
Baugh retired in December, roughly six months after state justices cited him for undermining public confidence in the judiciary by commenting that the teen girl, Cherice Moralez, was “as much in control of the situation” as the ex-teacher, Stacey Rambold, who was convicted of raping her in 2007.
Moralez killed herself before the case could be brought to trial.
State justices also found that Baugh imposed an unlawfully lenient term of incarceration when he sentenced Rambold to 15 years in prison with all but 31 days suspended. The court said Montana law required a sentence of at least four years for a defendant guilty of sexually assaulting a victim under 16.
Bradley on Friday faulted the bar association for seeking to refurbish the image of a judge whose remarks and actions raised troubling questions about the state legal system’s attitudes toward women and rape.
“It sends the wrong message to women and children of Montana and the nation when you hold up this judge as a model,” she said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Beech)