‘This system needs to start fresh’
Judge Edwards pushed ‘to clear the air’ of ‘lingering cloud’; DA Ballard urged ‘not making things worse and not overreacting’
Superior Court Judge Christopher C. Edwards felt strongly that an alleged affair between fellow jurist Paschal A. English Jr. and defense attorney Kim Cornwell had caused the public’s faith of the judicial system to waver.
And so it was that April 28, after waiting 16 days to research the matter himself, Edwards ordered District Attorney Scott Ballard and Public Defender Joe Saia to investigate the alleged extra-judicial affair, which has since been substantiated.
In a recording of the meeting (available online here), Edwards said he felt it necessary to address the matter in order to clear the circuit’s standing in the public’s eye.
“What concerns me is that this is the big unstated lingering cloud that is hanging over this entire system and I’m taking that off of you today because it has to happen,” Edwards said.
He then laid out two potential repercussions the Cornwell-English relationship may have left in its wake. Perhaps some people were in jail who shouldn’t be, and perhaps some weren’t in jail who should be, Edwards suggested.
“This judicial system needs to start fresh,” Edwards said later in the recording. “Everybody needs to clean their houses. People need to be advised ... you need to obey the highest standards because we’re going to be under very strict scrutiny forever.”
On the recording, Edwards recounted how the accusation came to his attention during an in-chambers conversation he witnessed more than two weeks prior between Judge English and a local divorce attorney. That attorney, Susan Brown, bluntly told English that rumors were circulating that he and public defender attorney Kim Cornwell were having an affair. Both English and Cornwell are married.
Judge English failed to deny the rumors during the exchange, Edwards noted. Edwards also recalled that at one point all of Cornwell’s cases had been assigned to Judge English’s courtroom, though the time frame in which that occurred was not explained on the recording.
That in-chambers meeting was the result of English asking Edwards to ask divorce attorney Susan Brown to appear in his chambers following a court hearing, Edwards explained.
Subsequently, DA Ballard’s investigation focused solely on the time frame after the Cornwell-Judge English affair was substantiated by a deputy who caught them in the middle of a sexual act. According to Ballard, that probe found no indication of any courtroom improprieties.
DA Ballard, the county’s top prosecutor, has since admitted in a newspaper column he wrote that it is likely “misconduct” took place prior to Oct. 13, 2008 when Cornwell and English were discovered by the deputy in a parked car in the Waterlace subdivision on the outskirts of Fayetteville.
Ballard’s office stopped short of trying to prove any judicial improprieties, and he said that task will be left up to any criminal defendants or their attorneys who might wish to challenge the outcome of their case.
Ballard also has acknowledged that he knew Cornwell and English spent time together, but Ballard contends he was unaware of the affair until the investigation began in late April of this year.
Edwards’s order to Ballard and Saia was to report their findings to two senior superior court judges from outside the circuit.
“What if somebody’s in jail and they want to ask the question: ‘Well, what did you two say about my case?’” Edwards said. “What can I do? There’s nothing I could do or would do to insulate somebody who’s convicted of a felony from being able to ask that question.”
Edwards said if the affair could be proved, it might be fairly simple to set aside entire convictions. Those convictions would have been secured in criminal court, the only venue in which Cornwell represented clients before Judge English.
Ballard on the recording said the system should be careful not to overreact. Minutes later he agreed it was a valid concept to do what needed to be done to protect the circuit’s injured reputation.
“I just think that the way we do it ... just needs to be with a mind towards not making things worse and not overreacting. I think it should be designed strictly toward finding the truth,” Ballard said.
Doing so, Ballard added, meant not only determining if there was an inappropriate relationship, but also if that relationship affected any cases in a “pivotal way.”
Also, if any such substantiation was made, a decision would need to be made on how to notify defendants who might have been affected by the judge-attorney relationship, Ballard added.
At the time of the April 28 recording, Judge English was serving his last three days as chief judge, having resigned the week prior, just four days following the resignation of fellow Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr., who later admitted that he made inappropriate remarks to female attorneys.
The recording of the April 28 conversation contained information that, according to Ballard, included more than half an hour of “off the record” conversation that was not reported by Edwards’s court reporter.
Ballard contended at a June 11 press conference that he was unaware a recording was being made of the “off the record” conversation, though he was aware when it went back on the record that it was being reported by the court reporter.
Ballard also contended that in the course of the investigation he ran into trouble trying to acquire the recording of the off the record conversation, though ultimately he was successful in securing the audio. That audio formed the basis for much of this story and is available in its entirety online here..