Commentary Sexuality

Judge Says 14-Year-Old Was ‘in Control’ When She Was Raped by Adult Teacher

Martha Kempner

A Montana school teacher will serve just 30 days for raping a student in part because the judge believed the 14-year-old girl—who has since committed suicide—was "as much in control" of the relationship as her teacher.

A Montana judge is making national headlines for comments he made after sentencing a school teacher to a mere 30 days for raping a 14-year-old student who has since committed suicide. The reasoning behind his decision, and even the wording of his subsequent public apologies, show just how much he (and the rest of us) have left to learn about issues of rape and consent.

The case began in 2008 when prosecutors charged high school business teacher Stacey Dean Rambold, now 54, with three counts of rape for having sex with Cherice Morales when she was 14. The case was still pending in 2010 when Morales took her own life shortly before her 17th birthday. Without a star witness, prosecutors decided to make a deal with Rambold under which—had he upheld his end of the bargain—he would have gotten no jail time at all. He admitted to one count of rape (knowing it could be used against him in the future) in exchange for them dismissing all charges against him if he completed a three-year treatment program for sex offenders. Rambold entered the program in July 2010 but stopped attending sessions in the summer of 2012. In November 2012, he was kicked out of the program when administrators learned that, in violation of the program’s rules, he was having unsupervised visits with minors and had entered into a sexual relationship with a woman without informing his treatment supervisor.

When prosecutors found out that he was no longer in the program, they revoked their deal, refiled charges, and asked the judge to sentence Rambold to 20 years, with ten years suspended; this would have meant ten years in prison. Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh, however, did not believe that Rambold’s crime deserved that harsh a sentence. Instead, he sentenced him to 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and he gave him credit for one day already spent in jail—meaning Rambold will only spend 30 days behind bars.

Baugh explained his decision by saying that the victim was a “troubled youth” who was “older than her chronological age.” Even though 14-year-olds cannot legally give consent in Montana (the age of consent is 16), the judge went on to say that she was “as much in control of the situation” as her teacher. While we struggle to digest these statements, we also have to remember that he made this assessment of Morales based only on statements she made before her death. He never met her or directly heard her side of the story.

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I will say that I, too, believe that chronological age is not necessarily the best indicator of ability to consent. I also believe that the current age of consent laws in this country are a problem because they can criminalize relationships that are actually consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable, and otherwise healthy. Under some state’s age of consent laws, for example, a typical high school relationship between a 15-year-old sophomore and an 18-year-old senior could be considered illegal, and if things went bad between the teens or their parent, the 18-year-old could even end up in jail.

But this is not at all what happened in the relationship between Morales and Rambold. The age and experience gap is disturbing. He was 35 years her senior—as her mother pointed out, she wasn’t even old enough to drive. Perhaps more importantly, however, he was a teacher and she was a student. There is an inherent power imbalance in this relationship, regardless of the age of the players, that leaves the student open to coercion, manipulation, and exploitation. We will never know exactly what transpired between the two, but there is no way that Morales had as much control over the situation as Rambold did.

The judge was immediately criticized for the sentence, which was handed down on Monday. The following day, he offered an additional justification that just dug a deeper hole. Though he admitted that a 14-year-old can’t give consent, Judge Baugh told the Billings Gazette that he thought the sentence was appropriate because of the nature of the crime. He explained, “I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is just given her age, but it wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.”

It’s possible that what the judge was going for in this statement was the idea that statutory rape and other forms of sexual assault are crimes of a different nature. There might a kernel of truth in this idea, again because age of consent laws can criminalize truly consensual relationships. But that is not what happened in this case, and implying that Morales was not “really” raped because she didn’t end up with a black eye or broken rib is offensive.

On Wednesday, Judge Baugh apologized for his remarks. In an apology published in the Gazette, he said he was “not sure just what I was attempting to say, but it did not come out correct.” He added, “What I said is demeaning of all women, not what I believe, and irrelevant to the sentencing.”

Ultraviolet and MoveOn.org are circulating petitions calling for Baugh’s resignation and dismissal, and a protest against him was held outside the courthouse on Thursday.

While the judge’s ultimate fate has yet to be decided, the fate of the others involved in the case is clear: Cherice Morales is dead, and Stacey Rambold will be free by fall.

News Law and Policy

Montana Judge Censured for Suggesting Teenage Rape Victim Partly to Blame for Attack

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Montana Supreme Court publicly declared District Judge G. Todd Baugh guilty of misconduct in the case of a Billings teacher who admitted to raping a 14-year-old student.

A Montana judge who suggested that a 14-year-old rape victim was at least partially to blame for her attack and sentenced the teacher who admitted attacking her to only 30 days in jail received a public reprimand from the Montana Supreme Court Tuesday.

The Associated Press reports that Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath delivered the censure to District Judge G. Todd Baugh of Billings, reading from a prepared censure statement. (A censure is a rarely used public declaration by the state’s highest court that a judge is guilty of misconduct.) “We have determined that, through your inappropriate comments, you have eroded public confidence in the judiciary and created an appearance of impropriety in violation of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct,” McGrath said.

Baugh drew international condemnation after his comments and sentencing in the case of Stacey Dean Rambold. Rambold, a former Billings Senior High School teacher, admitted to raping his former student, who later committed suicide. Baugh originally sentenced Rambold to 15 years in prison, with all but 31 days suspended. With credit for one day previously served, that meant that Rambold was ordered to serve only 30 days in jail, a sentence that dramatically deviated from sentencing guidelines.

At the time he delivered Rambold’s sentence, Judge Baugh explained the unusual order by suggesting that because the victim “looked older than her chronological age,” she was complicit in the crime committed against her, saying at the hearing that the girl was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold.

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Under Montana state law, children under 16 cannot consent to sex.

After protests and emergency filings by prosecutors in response to the sentencing deviation, Baugh apologized for his remarks and tried to amend his sentence. But the Montana Supreme Court intervened, and in April ordered a new sentencing hearing in the case, assigning the matter to a different judge. Rambold is now scheduled to be re-sentenced by District Judge Randal Spaulding on September 26.

In addition to the censure, the Montana Supreme Court also suspended Baugh for 31 days, effective in December. Baugh has said he plans to retire at the end of his term in December.

News Law and Policy

Montana Supreme Court to Censure Judge Who Blamed Teen Victim for Her Rape

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Montana Supreme Court said "there is no place in the Montana judiciary" for comments made by Judge G. Todd Baugh about a 14-year-old rape victim, among them that she appeared "older than her chronological age."

On Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court announced it will publicly censure a judge who said a 14-year-old rape victim appeared “older than her chronological age.” The judge sentenced the former teacher who admitted attacking her to a mere 30 days in jail.

Judge G. Todd Baugh of Billings drew international condemnation after the comments, which were made in the case of Stacey Dean Rambold. Rambold, a former Billings Senior High School teacher, admitted to raping his former student, who later committed suicide. Baugh originally sentenced Rambold to 15 years in prison, with all but 31 days suspended. With credit for one day previously served, that meant that Rambold was ordered to serve only 30 days in jail. In explaining his sentencing decision, Judge Baugh reasoned that the victim was complicit and partially to blame for the assault, saying at the hearing that the girl was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold.

Baugh later apologized for his remarks and tried to amend his sentence. But the Montana Supreme Court intervened, and in April ordered a new sentencing hearing in the case and assigned the matter to a different judge. On Tuesday, the state supreme court denied a request from Rambold’s attorneys for a new hearing. His attorneys had argued that the one month Rambold had already served in a Montana state prison was sufficient. Rambold, now a registered sex offender, has been free since last fall after serving that sentence and was to remain on probation through 2028.

The order by the state supreme court places Baugh on a 31-day suspension without pay and orders him to appear before the court July 1 for the public censure. “There is no place in the Montana judiciary for perpetuating the stereotype that women and girls are responsible for sexual crimes committed against them,” Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote. The justices also criticized Baugh for handing down an illegal sentence that violated sentencing guidelines.

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Baugh has said he plans to retire at the end of his term in December.

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