The Ray Rice of Judges May Keep His Job

The wife of a federal judge in Alabama says he savagely beat her in a hotel room. So why will he probably return to the bench?

09.11.14 9:45 AM ET

The Ray Rice case shows that the NFL’s domestic abuse policy is bad. But the federal judicial system’s is even worse.

Although U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller is accused of a more prolonged and arguably more brutal assault on his wife than Rice, he will likely keep his job. With the protection of lifetime tenure on the bench and a helpful plea deal, Fuller appears set to skate away professionally unscathed.

Last month, Fuller’s wife, Kelli, made a frantic 911 call from a room in the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. She pled for help, according to local news sources, and said the judge was beating her even as the call was underway.

“He’s beating on me. Please help me,” she said. The 911 dispatcher patched in an ambulance dispatcher, saying, “I can hear him hitting her now.”

An incident report would lay out what police found: blood in the bathroom, broken glass and hair on the floor—and visible injuries on Kelli Fuller’s mouth and forehead. She told police that the Alabama-based judge pulled her hair, dragged her, kicked her and struck her in the face.

“The beating he administrated to his wife is far more extensive than the one Ray Rice administered to his fiancée,” Donald Watkins, an Alabama attorney who is trying to get Fuller expelled from the bench, told The Daily Beast. “I’ve seen that the privilege and power of being a federal judge gives you impunity to beat your wife.” Watkins recently wrote to the Supreme Court urging Chief Justice John Roberts to take action against Fuller.

Fuller’s attorney and friend, Barry Ragsdale, played down the incident as a mere “family matter,” and said the judge anticipated returning to his job.

“He is embarrassed by the fact that it became a public spectacle rather than a family matter,” Ragsdale told the Beast. “He admits that he laid his hands on her during the course of that altercation… [but] nothing in the incident disqualifies him from being a federal judge.”

Ray Rice was quickly ostracized when the full brutality of his abuse became evident. Mark Fuller, on the other hand, is unlikely to see any long-term professional fallout.

Federal judges are afforded a great deal of leeway by the legal system due to the difficulty of removing them from office. In order to remove Fuller from the bench, the House of Representatives would have to vote on articles of impeachment, and the Senate would have to vote to convict.

“NFL players don’t have life tenure. That’s the big problem here. When you give a group of people life tenure, when you have a very complicated system for removing them from office, it’s not likely that much is going to be done,” explained Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. “He’ll probably be, at some point, restored to his position.”

The judge already looks set to avoid conviction on accusations of battery: Last week he accepted a plea deal that would avoid pending charges if he completes a counseling program.

In the meantime, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is investigating the incident. However, its options are weak: The court can issue a public rebuke or ask Fuller to resign, but little else. 

In fact, The acting chief judge of the 11th Circuit has already alluded to Fuller’s return to the bench, telling Law360 that “Fuller recognizes that he needs to deal with these serious issues quickly so when he returns there is as little disruption to his cases as possible.”

Fuller’s attorney said that judgment should wait until the 11th Circuit concludes its investigation.

“There has been a rush to judgment based on very little evidence, really no evidence, about what’s transpired,” Ragsdale said. “[If] Judge Fuller concludes that he is morally incapable of continuing in that position, he will resign.”