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Panel To Ask Supreme Court to Find Former Assistant Judge in Contempt

March 10, 1988

BARRE, Vt. (AP) _ A judicial conduct board said it will seek a contempt citation against a former judge for refusing to answer questions Wednesday at a hearing on misconduct charges against a former state Supreme Court justice.

Jane Wheel, a former Chittenden County assistant judge, cited her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions during the Judicial Conduct Board hearing on former Justice William Hill.

Hill was one of three Supreme Court members charged with misconduct in January 1987. One of the three died; the case against the third was dropped.

Hill, who has since retired from the high court, is accused of improperly using his judicial clout to assist Wheel, 55.

Wheel’s refusal to answer questions prompted the hearing panel to direct its lawyer to petition the Supreme Court to find Wheel in contempt. She could face jail.

″I don’t think we’re risking contempt,″ said Wheel’s lawyer Richard Davis. ″If asserting one’s right to refuse to testify under the Fifth Amendment presents a risk in this country then we better start with a new system.″

Wheel was found guilty in state court last month on charges of lying under oath during an inquiry into allegations she submitted false pay vouchers. The case is under appeal.

The board had ruled that Wheel may invoke the Fifth Amendment on questions relating directly to the criminal charges. But panel chairman Harvey Otterman said that protection does not extend to questions that are merely embarrassing.

Wheel gave her name, address and length of service but balked when prosecutor William Donahue asked about her relationship with Hill.

Prosecutors allege Hill allowed his friendship with Wheel to interfere with his judicial duties. Assistant judges are commonly lay people; they handle civil cases. Hill was a teacher before she was elected.

Hill has said his relationship with Wheel was a proper professional one. But Margaret Maskell, a courthouse employee, testified Tuesday that she once found Wheel with her arms around Hill’s neck in his chambers.

The hearing panel is composed of three of seven members of the Judicial Conduct Board; the three hearing the case will make recommendations to the full board.

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