A Mecklenburg County judge has been publicly reprimanded by the state Supreme Court for failing to issue a ruling in a routine court case until more than two years after the last hearing.
In an order handed down Friday, the state's highest court agreed with the findings of the Judicial Standards Commission that District Judge Gary Henderson's conduct undermined public confidence in the courts, violated judicial conduct and failed "to maintain professional competence."
Henderson, a Democrat, has expressed remorse for his actions and fully cooperated with the commission's investigation, according to the court's order.
In an email to the Observer on Friday, Henderson acknowledged that his decision "took longer than necessary."
"I own up to it and remedied it," he wrote. "As the court order says, this was an isolated incident and my record of service is otherwise exemplary. I have learned from this situation and believe strongly in upholding the integrity of the court system."
Henderson's reprimand was five years in the making.
In August 2013, Henderson began hearing a trial over whether a Mecklenburg woman was entitled to attorney fees, related costs and expenses as part of her claims for post-separation support and permanent child custody, the state Supreme Court order says. The trial took two more hearings in Henderson's courtroom before it concluded in November 2014.
Henderson did not hand down a verdict. Instead, according to the court order, he asked both sides to submit written oral arguments. Both attorneys did so by mid-December 2014.
Six months passed without a ruling. When one of the attorneys, Amy Fiorenza, inquired in June 2015 about the status of the judge's decision, Henderson emailed his apologies the next day, saying he hoped to work on his ruling in the coming week.
Six weeks later, Fiorenza inquired again, saying her client "was anxious to receive a decision sometime in 2015."
This time in his reply, Henderson made no promises. He said an order in 2015 was unlikely because he would not have the time, the Supreme Court says.
In February 2016, when Fiorenza inquired a third time, Henderson did not respond, according to the court order.
That April — and 16 months removed from the last hearing in the case — Fiorenza contacted Henderson a final time, saying she would be forced to withdraw from the case if Henderson did not rule soon on the attorney fees and other costs.
She left the case in June 2016; Henderson still had not ruled, the Supreme Court says.
Fiorenza's client, now without a lawyer, emailed Henderson two weeks later to inquire about his missing order. Once again, Henderson, according to the opinion, did not respond.
The client then emailed Chief Mecklenburg District Court Judge Regan Miller, complaining that 18 months since she last appeared in Henderson's courtroom, the judge had still not issued a ruling in her case.
Miller forwarded the email to Henderson, who acknowledged in his reply that he had been "dragging his feet" out of his "dread" for the case. He also said he would be "making a decision soon," the order says.
"Soon" turned out to be a relative term. In November 2016, six months after Henderson's promise to his boss that he would issue an order promptly, Fiorenza's former client filed a formal complaint against the judge with the Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.
Five more months would pass before Henderson's order was officially entered in March 2017. That was more than two years and three months removed from the last hearing.
Under North Carolina law, the Supreme Court has an array of punishments it can apply to judges, from removal to suspension and censure. Public reprimands were added a decade ago for cases in which a judge has engaged in misconduct, but the problem is considered minor enough not to earn a harsher punishment from the high court.
When the reprimand is made public, as the Supreme Court did Friday with its order against Henderson, it's a sign that the judge has accepted the discipline.
In recommending the lighter punishment, the Judicial Standards Commission said Henderson's misconduct appeared to be an isolated case when compared to Henderson's "exemplary" record of service to the courts, the legal profession and the community.