OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A veteran Oklahoma judge accused of abuse of power after he jailed hundreds of people for contempt of court has resigned, raising the possibility of litigation to recoup what attorneys said Tuesday could be thousands of dollars in improperly assessed fines.
District Judge Curtis DeLapp, who faced an ouster trial on Oct. 15 trial before the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary, announced his resignation on Monday in a statement in which he said he has “a heavy heart but clear conscience.”
DeLapp agreed to resign, abandon his re-election campaign and never again serve as a judge in Oklahoma. He keeps his judicial retirement benefits.
A petition Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Douglas Combs filed Aug. 1 accused DeLapp of gross neglect of duty, oppression, falsifying court documents, campaign violations and violations of various judicial codes of conduct.
The removal petition says DeLapp had issued “in excess of 200 direct contempt citations ordering incarceration” since 2016, in violation of due process rights and in “complete disregard of applicable laws.”
Among the cases listed in the petition was a woman cited for direct contempt of court and jailed for four days in December 2015 for eating sunflower seeds in court.
Attorneys said that case and others could lead to class-action litigation by those cited for contempt to recoup fines and other costs they were illegally assessed. Those cited for contempt were typically fined $500 and ordered to pay fees and court costs.
“That was $500 a crack times 200 people,” said attorney Les Reynolds of Bartlesville, where DeLapp is based. If each person cited for contempt paid the fine, the total could exceed $100,000.
“If they did collect the money, there’s lots of problems out there,” Reynolds said. “If a good attorney takes it up, there could be thousands for him to go after.”
And while judges and other judicial officers have immunity from lawsuits arising out of their official duties, DeLapp could still face liability for false imprisonment allegations if a court finds he committed gross negligence, attorneys said.
“It may possibly be a way to pierce that immunity,” said Bartlesville attorney Aaron Pembleton.
Attorneys said various members of the legal community are researching possible litigation once DeLapp’s resignation is accepted by the Court on the Judiciary and takes effect. DeLapp has agreed to voluntarily suspend himself from office until then.