Embattled judge withdraws from all criminal cases

BOSTON - A judge under fire for sentencing a child molester to home confinement instead of prison said Wednesday she has asked to be removed from all criminal cases for the rest of the month.

Superior Court Judge Maria I. Lopez, who had been scheduled to hear only civil cases in October, November and December, said that she has requested that she handle only civil cases in September, too.

''Due to the nature of criminal practice and procedure, I have concluded that I should not sit on criminal cases at this time,'' Lopez said in a statement.

Superior Court Chief Justice Suzanne DelVecchio approved the request, said a court spokeswoman, Joan Kenney.

Lopez's statement came hours after the top Republican in the state House filed a bill that would begin the process of removing Lopez from the bench.

The bill, filed by House Minority Leader Fran Marini, would authorize Gov. Paul Cellucci to hold a hearing before the board that oversees judicial appointments to determine if Lopez should be removed.

The proposal stands little chance of success before the end of the year, said state Rep. Jay R. Kaufman, because lawmakers have adjourned from formal session until January. During informal session, a single lawmaker can block legislation.

''The simple, obvious truth is that our forebearers, in their wisdom, created a complicated, deliberative process,'' Kaufman said.

Lopez has been under fire since Sept. 6, when she sentenced Charles Horton, 22, to a year of home detention instead of the eight- to 10-year prison sentence requested by prosecutors.

Horton, a transsexual, admitted to luring a 12-year-old boy into his car Nov. 20 while dressed as a woman. Horton then held a screwdriver to the boy's neck while forcing him to simulate sex acts, prosecutors said.

Critics said the sentence was too lenient, and objected to Lopez' harsh upbraiding of a prosecutor in court.

They have also knocked her sometimes flashy personal style. One newspaper published a photograph of Lopez wearing Spandex and Rollerblades.

Lt. Gov. Jane Swift told The MetroWest Daily News that factors unrelated to the sentence should be irrelevant to the debate.

''I don't think how Judge Lopez dresses, or her decorum on the bench, has any bearing on this case,'' said Swift, a Republican.

On Tuesday, Lopez, a Superior Court judge since 1993, removed herself from a drug case because an attorney had requested the hearing be closed to the public. Lopez said that given the media scrutiny she has drawn, it would have looked like she was hiding if she had agreed to close the hearing.

Massachusetts judges are appointed by the governor, with the approval of the Governor's Council, for terms that end at a mandatory retirement age of 70.

Cellucci, a Republican, has refused to back Marini's proposal to remove Lopez. He said his legal advisers are studying the proposal.

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