By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert’s top judge abruptly stepped down last month – seemingly forced out by innuendos of an improper relationship and a few amateur sleuths among the staff at Municipal Court.

Presiding Judge John E. Hudson resigned Feb. 14 after 11 years on the job, saying that it was time for him to explore new opportunities.

His resignation letter came two days after an outside investigation released findings on a complaint filed by an unidentified court service clerk, who backed up one of her allegations with videos taken secretly outside a coworker’s home.

Hudson, considered a pro-prosecution judge among some attorneys, told GSN that he decided to leave as a result of conversations he had with Town Council after members got the investigator’s report.

“My record speaks for itself and I was thinking that if they don’t know me after 16 years, it was probably time to try something new,” Hudson said.

Prior to his last stint, Hudson was an associate judge for the town for six years.

Pierce Coleman, a management-side labor and employment law firm, conducted the investigation. Many of the names were redacted in the firm’s report obtained by Gilbert Sun News’ request under the state open records law.

The clerk claimed Hudson and a court supervisor routinely engaged in conduct both in and outside of the workplace that suggested a romantic or inappropriate relationship.

Apparently other court employees also had the same take, investigator Aaron Arnson reported.

The clerk also alleged the court supervisor was given an unreasonable degree of input over court policies and procedures and had a “direct line” to Hudson that other employees did not because of her relationship with him.

And, the clerk alleged, the judge helped the woman with job opportunities.

To back up her claim, the clerk took to some gumshoeing of her own, camping out at the court supervisor’s apartment complex and taking videos of the judge’s visits.

Her videos showed the judge visiting the apartment complex on four occasions – Dec. 20, 2018, Jan. 8, 2019, Jan. 19, 2019 and Jan. 21, 2019, according to the report.

One video just captured the judge’s car in the apartment parking lot.

The duration of the visits ranged from about 29 minutes to one hour and 35 minutes, based on the date and time stamps on the videos.

The service clerk wasn’t the only one set on spying on her co-worker.

Arnson said the appearance of a special relationship between the judge and the woman caused two other employees to separately and independently go to their co-worker’s apartment complex to uncover the nature of the relationship between the two.

The clerk told the investigator that she made the videos because when she reported her suspicion to the deputy court administrator, she was told there was no proof to do anything.

Additionally, the service clerk who filed the complaint alleged she was passed over a job by a less-qualified employee because of discrimination. The investigation found no evidence to support her claim.

Arnson asked the clerk how she decided when to do her surveillance.

“She said that because she knew Judge Hudson is married, she figured he would need an excuse to be out of the house and assumed that nights after Town Council meetings and the weekends that he was handling the in-custody docket would provide ready excuses,” according to Arnson.

In-custody docket refers to release hearings for defendants that are held within 24 hours of an arrest. Sometimes these hearings are held on the weekends and during holidays when the court is not open.

Arnson noted the Dec. 20 and Jan. 8 apartment visits coincided with nights after a council meeting and the Jan. 19 and 21 visits coincided with Hudson’s handling of the in-custody docket.

The investigator interviewed Hudson and the court supervisor separately about the visits.

Arnson said the woman – before learning there were videos – stated the judge had never been to her apartment, but quickly corrected herself to say he visited once to repay money she had loaned him.

When informed of the videos indicating four separate occasions that the judge had visited the apartment complex, the woman then said she could not remember the reasons for Hudson’s visits.

After she was told one visit was just two weeks prior, the woman gave a relatively long pause, Arnson said.

He reported she then said the judge came to her apartment to repay a loan, that he had dropped off a court-issued ID badge she had forgotten and he came to pick up some food she had brought home from a staff meeting so he could take it home.

Arnson said he asked for a reason for the fourth visit and she responded she couldn’t recall.

He also reported she could not explain the duration of the visits.

But she did say she has been at other court employees’ homes in the past and denied she and Hudson “are now or ever have been in a sexual or romantic relationship,” Arnson stated.

Hudson gave explanations for the visits.

In one case, he said he was helping the woman with her son’s child custody issue. For the Jan. 19 and 21 visits, he said the woman’s son had been arrested and her car was impounded because he was driving on a suspended license. Hudson also mentioned the forgotten ID badge as a reason for one visit.

Asked why the woman’s legal issues couldn’t be discussed at work, Hudson said she was a private person who didn’t like to talk about personal matters in the office, according to Arnson.

Hudson added he didn’t want to give the appearance of “lingering in each other’s offices for too long after hours,” the report said.

Hudson also said it was not unusual for him to go to an employee’s home for a social function or to give an employee a ride home, the report said, adding that he too denied he and the woman have ever engaged in a romantic relationship.

Arnson said he was later given information that suggested Hudson may have visited the woman’s apartment complex on Dec. 23, for a total of five visits.

Given Dec. 23 coincided with the judge’s handling of the in-custody docket, Arnson said he found strong but no conclusive evidence a fifth visit occurred.

He also found the court supervisor’s testimony on the apartment visits “not credible.” And, he found it difficult to accept on face value Hudson’s reasons for his visits.

Arnson said he interviewed several other employees who gave examples of exclusive behavior between the two, including routinely going to get lunch and coffee together or bringing lunch and coffee to each other and rarely, if ever, doing the same for anyone else at the court house.

Several court employees also indicated to Arnson the two spent significant time in each other’s offices – allegedly several hours at a time on some occasions.

At least two employees noted the supervisor often spent time lying down on the couch in the judge’s office and that she used his personal refrigerator.

Arnson said he was not given a more accurate accounting of the amount of time the two allegedly spent in each other’s office or any particular dates or occasions.

Hudson denied there was an inordinate amount of time spent in each other’s offices, and both indicated the bulk of that time involved work-related matters.

Hudson and the woman also said both offices had windows and if any untoward behavior occurred, it would have been seen.

The woman added that other employees also have used the judge’s couch such as when they were ill and that she used the judge’s personal refrigerator because the staff refrigerator was often dirty.

Arnson concluded the judge and the woman took regular lunches and coffees together and that the two spent significant time in each other’s office – more than what was spent in other employee’s offices.

But he could not conclude there was a romantic or inappropriate relationship between the two.

He said he found evidence of a distinct relationship between the two and that the woman herself recognized her relationship with Hudson was unique compared with his relationships with other employees.

According to the woman, other employees could have the same kind of relationship with the judge but didn’t because they didn’t try.

She further described herself as being the judge’s “favorite,” according to Arnson.

Arnson concluded the judge and the woman’s conduct resulted in, at a minimum, an appearance of an improper or at least special relationship.

Arnson also looked into the allegation the woman had more influence and input over Hudson’s court decisions because of their relationship.

The view that she seemed to have a direct line to the judge was shared by many of the court employees interviewed – including clerks, management-level employees and judges – according to Arnson.

The investigator cited two concrete examples of the alleged direct line to the judge.

One involved a judge who recalled an instance when he was filling in for another judge and during a hearing, an issue arose regarding a defendant’s plea agreement.

The judge indicated his intent to rule in a certain way when the supervisor told the judge he was handling the issue incorrectly and that policy dictated a different course of action.

The judge disagreed and proceeded with his ruling.

According to the judge and the prosecutor on the case, the supervisor left the proceedings a few minutes later. Then, Hudson came into the courtroom and asked the judge to leave the bench, and instructed him as to what the course of action should be, according to Arnson.

Hudson denied the woman had a direct line to him and gave examples of when he changed policy based on employee input other than from the supervisor.

Arnson said he found no evidence the woman had more influence than other employees had with Hudson but that it was a perception held by employees.

Arnson also found no evidence Hudson helped the woman gain a supervisor-level job in late 2016 at Mesa City Court and than allegedly brought her back to Gilbert in a supervisor position after acquiring additional experience in Mesa.

Arnson said the court supervisor position in Gilbert Municipal Court was in the works for a while and was not created for the woman as alleged.

But he found possible evidence of favorable treatment.

According to the deputy court administrator and court administrator, when the woman applied for the court supervisor job in Gilbert, she didn’t make the top 20 percent to be considered for an interview.

They said sometime later Hudson approached them, saying he didn’t trust the software that was used to rank qualified applicants and wanted all the applicants reviewed.

The deputy court administrator told Arnson she expressed reservation because that was not done before. The judge told them his was the procedure they would follow.

The woman made it through the review process and was interviewed and ultimately selected for the job.

Hudson told Arnson it may not have been his decision to review every application and that he had no influence over who was chosen for interviews and had no influence in the interview process.

Arnson said there was conflicting accounts on who made the decision to review the entire batch of applicants.

“I conclude the process employed gave at least the appearance of preferential treatment with respect to the Gilbert Court position,” he wrote. “The court implemented an application review system that differed entirely from the process the court has used before.”

And, he said, the decision to review all the applicants was made after learning the woman did not make the initial cut.

Hudson declined comment on his underlings’ skullduggery, telling GSN, “If I was doing something my staff and my management team disagreed with, there apparently was a communication problem.”

He said he hasn’t yet decided what he’ll be doing next. “I’m taking the opportunity to reflect on my second act,” he said.

Before coming to work for Gilbert, Hudson also served as deputy county attorney for Maricopa and La Paz counties and was the deputy town attorney for Paradise Valley.

Hudson is a 1993 graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Arizona State University in 1990.