Ex-Judge Imprisoned for Assault on Wife Avoids Disbarment

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By Samson Habte

Lance T. Mason, a former judge and state legislator who spent nine months in prison for brutally assaulting his wife in public, was indefinitely suspended from practicing law by the Ohio Supreme Court Dec. 28.

The high court removed Mason from the bench in August 2014, three weeks after his wife called 911 to report that Mason punched her repeatedly and bit her cheek while driving her and their two minor children home from a family funeral.

But voting unanimously, the justices refused to disbar Mason—rejecting recommendations from the Ohio State Bar and Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct.

“We agree with the board that Mason’s misconduct was ‘egregious,’” Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote. “In fact, his misconduct was reprehensible and abhorrent. However, we do not believe that his misconduct fits in the same category as the cases in which disbarment was the sanction imposed.”

Steep Fall From Grace

In a brief submitted to the court, Mason said he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1992 and worked as a trial attorney in the Department of Agriculture, then returned to his home state of Ohio in 1996 to take a job as an assistant county prosecutor.

In 1999, Mason was hired to run the district office of a U.S. Congresswoman. He left that job in 2002, when he was appointed to the Ohio House of Representatives. He was subsequently re-elected to that post and then won a seat in the Ohio Senate, where he rose to become the assistant minority whip.

During his stint in the legislature, which lasted until 2008, Mason also worked in the litigation group of Baker & Hostetler LLP. Mason left the legislature in 2008, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.

In August 2014, Mason was arrested for beating his wife, Aisha Fraser, while he was driving and their children were in the backseat. Police received a 911 call from a woman who said she “saw fists flying” in an SUV that was “all over the road swerving.”

In his court brief, Mason said he and Fraser had separated a few months before the incident, and that he lost his temper when they began arguing about a divorce while driving home from his aunt’s funeral.

“Mason struck Fraser repeatedly in the head, hit Fraser’s head against the armrest, the dashboard, and the window of the passenger door, and bit Fraser on her face,” the court said. Fraser attempted to escape but “Mason grabbed her hair,” then followed her out of the car to continue beating her after she was able to escape.

Fraser, who suffered an orbital blowout fracture, called 911 to report the assault and express concern about the safety of their children. Mason drove the children home and called his sister to ask her to pick them up because he intended to shoot himself, the court said. Police arrested Mason at his home, where they confiscated a shotgun, semi-automatic rifle, two handguns, smoke grenades, a bulletproof vest and 2,500 rounds of ammunition.

Mason was removed from the bench three weeks later, after he was indicted for felonious assault, kidnapping, domestic violence, and child endangerment. In 2015 Mason pleaded guilty to attempted felonious assault and domestic violence and was sentenced to a two-year prison term; he was released after serving nine months.

First Impression

The board found that Mason violated a judicial conduct rule that requires judges to act “in a manner that promotes public confidence” in the judiciary; and Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct that prohibit illegal acts that reflect adversely on a lawyer’s honesty or trustworthiness, and conduct that reflects adversely on a lawyer’s fitness to practice.

The board said it recommended Mason’s disbarment in part because of “misgivings” it had about his “dubious explanation for the behavior, failure to provide assurances that the behavior will not occur again, and less than heartfelt engagement in the redemptive process.”

The Ohio bar echoed those observations. “The evidence before the panel showed a ferocious attack, more than a simple loss of temper, with insufficient explanation for the behavior,” it said, endorsing the disbarment recommendation.

But the court said the recommended sanction wasn’t supported by case law. "[W]e have not found any cases in which a judge was disciplined after a felony conviction for assault,” Kennedy wrote.

The court did find cases involving lawyers convicted of felony assault, however, and it said those lawyers were suspended, rather than disbarred.

“Mason was convicted of a felony based on a single violent assault,” the court said. “Brutal it surely was. But it was not shown to be premeditated or part of a pattern of behavior. In this regard, we consider this case to be distinguishable from those cited by the board.”

Accordingly, the court indefinitely suspended Mason from practice and conditioned his reinstatement on his submitting to a mental health evaluation and obtaining a report verifying that he is able to return to practice.

The case is Ohio State Bar Ass’n v. Mason , 2017 BL 463913, Ohio, No. 2017-0794, 12/28/17 .

Mason was represented by Alkire & Nieding LLP. The Ohio Bar Association was represented by General Counsel J. Desiree Blankenship, Columbus, Ohio; Assistant Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kelly E. Heile, Hamilton, Ohio; Maura E. Scanlon, Akron, Ohio; and Eugene P. Whetzel, Columbus.

To contact the reporter on this story: Samson Habte in Washington at shabte@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: S. Ethan Bowers at sbowers@bloomberglaw.com

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