Seattle enraged by a judge who cut down park's trees to improve his view

Andrew Gumbel
Thursday 09 January 2003 01:00
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Jerome Farris may be an eminent judge on the US circuit court of appeals, but in Seattle, his home town, he is about as popular as a serial killer. Six months ago, after Judge Farris decided to improve the view from his well-appointed home on the shores of Lake Washington, his gardener cut down 120 prized big-leaf maple and cherry trees in a public park that stood between his property and the lake.

As an act of sheer chutzpah, it seemed breathtaking – not least because the trees were reduced to ugly stumps and the trunks abandoned where they fell. The city parks department went ballistic, the public began baying for Judge Farris's blood, and the district attorney's office opened a criminal investigation.

But this week, adding insult to injury, the prosecutor decided not to pursue charges of malicious mischief, saying he believed the judge acted in good faith. "I have concluded that the trees were cut down as a result of a series of misunderstandings," Norm Maleng told an incredulous news conference.

Anger does not begin to convey the frenzy of emotion now boiling over in Seattle, a city well-known for its attachment to its stunning natural surroundings.

A tree activist described the judge's actions as a "massacre" and a "criminal violation". A newspaper columnist pointed out that Judge Farris's influence clearly "abuts" the prosecutor's office in much the same way that his property abuts the fallen trees in Colman Park. A neighbour of Judge Farris, said: "If these cuttings had been done by some poor kids from the projects they'd be sitting in jail right now. Not prosecuting this as a crime puts people on notice that there are two types of justice: one for the rich and powerful, the other for the rest of us."

The saga is as comic as it is outrageous, not least when it comes to Judge Farris's tortured explanations of his actions.

He was acting, he said, on a 1981 letter he received from the parks department authorising him to trim the tops of some of the trees. He left instructions with his Vietnamese gardener before leaving town last July, only to be utterly dismayed on his return to see the results – clearly, he insisted, the consequence of confusion since the gardener did not speak good English. "I could never intentionally engage in any conduct which would damage or otherwise diminish the value of any park," he said.

But that was not the story told by the gardener. Duc Huynh said he was instructed to cut trees well beyond the judge's property line. When he questioned whether that was OK, he said, the judge responded: "That's OK." Mr Huynh said the judge encouraged him to "cut more" and then, when his work was over, told him he had done a "good job".

The story does not end here. The Seattle city attorney's office is considering bringing lesser misdemeanour charges, as well as a possible civil suit that could end up costing the judge as much as $600,000 (£372,000) in restitution and fines.

Parks officials and environmentalists fear, however, that other property owners may now feel emboldened to cut down trees to improve their views and thereby add more value to their homes than any fine could offset.

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