Judge Estes transferred out of Belchertown court, put on administrative duty

  • Judge Thomas Estes, seen here March 21, 2016, at an arraignment in Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown.  Pool Photo-The Republican/Don Treeger

Sunday, September 10, 2017

BELCHERTOWN — In what court officials are terming “a personnel matter,” the first justice of Eastern Hampshire District Court, Thomas Estes, has been reassigned to Holyoke District Court, where he is not presiding over cases.

State trial court officials declined to provide the reason for the reassignment.

The clerk’s office at the Belchertown court referred the Gazette to the public information office at the Supreme Judicial Court. SJC spokeswoman Jennifer Donahue confirmed that Estes was placed on “administrative assignment” on Aug. 17, and that Judge Maureen Walsh has been appointed as acting first justice in his place.

“This is a personnel matter and we are not able to provide additional comment at this time,” Donahue wrote. Administrative assignment means a judge “is doing research and other duties for the administrative office, and is not currently hearing cases,” Donahue said.

Estes, who has been first justice in Eastern Hampshire District Court since last February, owns a home in Northampton. He was appointed a judge in Northampton District Court in March 2014, after working previously as a public defender in Hampshire County.

Estes drew public backlash last summer over his role as the judge in the case of David Becker, an East Longmeadow High School star athlete who was accused of sexually assaulting two women while they were unconscious at a house party.

Estes sentenced Becker to two years probation and ordered his case continued without a finding, meaning the two charges of indecent assault and battery would be dismissed if he successfully completed his probation. Becker was initially charged with two counts of rape and one count of indecent assault and battery, but pleaded guilty to the lesser charges.

Critics saw Becker’s sentence as overly lenient, drawing parallels to the case of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who got six months in jail for a rape conviction. A subsequent online petition calling for Estes’ ouster received more than 46,000 supporters.

Estes also on occasion displayed a puckish sense of humor in the courtroom. In April 2016 he took 15 University of Massachusetts students to task for driving cars to their arraignment on trespassing charges stemming from a protest over the university's investments in fossil fuel companies.

“You know,” Estes said to the students, “when I read the papers and drove over here today, I was expecting a bunch of bikes out front.”

Turning serious, he suggested the students shouldn’t fight fossil fuels and invest in them at the same time.

“I actually would have been proud of you if you had taken the bus and walked into the courtroom. That would’ve been something.

“If you’re all protesting this,” he continued, “it matters how you spend your money.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.