Top justice sent racy video to colleagues
Myron Steele used state e-mail to share video with 38 male friends, lawyers
By MAUREEN MILFORD
The News Journal
Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, the national face of Delaware's powerful and highly respected courts, used his state e-mail account Monday to send a sexually suggestive video to 38 men.
The e-mailed video obtained by The News Journal, called "Wine-Opener," depicts a professional-looking young woman in a bar competing with a glamorous blonde for the attention of a man by simulating oral sex with a wine bottle. Steele, who received the e-mail from a man, forwarded it with the message: "Write your own caption for this one."
Steele said Wednesday that he viewed the e-mail video attachment as a harmless joke that would not offend anyone.
"I don't think there was anything offensive to women," Steele said. "I forwarded it to people I thought would find it amusing."
Steele, who said he has daughters who are professionals and a businesswoman wife, said he felt the video showed "assertive" women in their "own right."
Steele said he didn't think his action violated the Delaware Judges' Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to "avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety." Steele added that it would be a "very serious mischaracterization" for anyone to think he could not be impartial to women in his court.
Despite the fact it was on his state e-mail account, Steele said he didn't view it as a public e-mail because he didn't expect it to be "broadcast widely."
"I apologize to anyone who might have seen it who might be offended," Steele said. "All the ones who know me know there's nothing behind this. They know my character and history and that this was just a frivolous joke. Probably, in retrospect, I wouldn't send it again."
Most of those to whom Steele sent the video did not return e-mails or phone calls from The News Journal. One said he was "drawing a blank."
One out-of-state corporate law professor said, "There's no way I'm going near this."
But Wilmington lawyer Mike Kelly confirmed he had received Steele's e-mail.
"It is a years-old television commercial for a defunct European Web site," Kelly said. "Anyone can pull it up in 10 seconds on You Tube. Chief Justice Steele only sent it to some of his friends."
Susan Koniak, a professor of law at Boston University School of Law and co-author of "The Law and Ethics of Lawyering" legal casebook, said Steele should resign.
"I can't tell you how offended I was," said Koniak, who agreed to view a copy of the video for The News Journal. "Don't think anything about how wonderful a judge he is makes up for doing this. It undermines the judiciary completely."
Describing the video as "soft porn," Koniak said most people will be reluctant to comment on the incident because Steele is such an influential jurist. Delaware's Supreme Court often hears appeals on matters related to the nation's biggest corporations, including the 2005 high-profile shareholder suit involving executive compensation at The Walt Disney Co.
She said the fact he sent the e-mail gives the impression that "he can't be impartial to women."
The fact that the woman in the video who simulates the sex act is a professional-looking woman only makes the offense worse, she said.
"It could be a lawyer, a clerk in the court, a stenographer, a secretary. She's a woman in professional garb. It's a classic theme in porn. She's being ignored by men. She's unworthy of attention except to give men [oral sex]."
Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics, said the split-second nature of the Internet is a danger for users. People push the send button before thinking of the ramifications and then they can't take it back, he said.
Steele himself has written about the informal nature of Internet postings. In a 2005 opinion, Steele wrote that "the Internet is a unique democratizing medium unlike anything that has come before. The advent of the Internet dramatically changed the nature of public discourse by allowing more and diverse people to engage in public debate."
Gillers said judges are held to a higher standard than most people and must accept "they have to give up certain freedoms."
"It shows a lack of sensitivity to the position," Gillers said. "He shouldn't have done it."
While he doesn't think the e-mail violated the Delaware Judges' Code of Judicial Conduct, Gillers finds it problematic that the e-mail was sent on Steele's official e-mail account to lawyers.
"Law firms have very severe rules because it could be seen as harassing," Gillers said. "Many American law firms would look askance on this and it would violate use of office computers."
William Hodes, a professor emeritus of law at Indiana University School of Law, who helped draft the recent American Bar Association revision of the code of judicial conduct, said "the chief justice ought to have a little bit more self-control, certainly, because it was on his work account."
Hodes said the incident raises the issue of Steele fraternizing with lawyers who go before him. Somebody who had a recent, pending or impending matter before the court could file an ethics complaint, he said.
In Delaware, complaints concerning a judge are filed with the state's Court on the Judiciary.
"Who were these lawyers and why were they selected? Obviously, they're buddies," Hodes said.
Steele said most of the e-mail recipients were former clerks. Other recipients included lawyers, another Delaware judge and a Delaware businessman.
"In the Delaware Bar, it's difficult not to have contact" with lawyers, he said. Steele said he is not concerned that someone will try to overturn a case.
Steele said the incident is embarrassing, but added that Delawareans who know his character and history will understand that there was no ill intent behind it.
Delawareans will be unhappy with those who raise the issue of impropriety, he said.
"In retrospect, I never should forward any joke of any kind," he said.