DYERSBURG, TENN. — The saga of Tennessee Judge David Lanier is almost too bad to be true.
The son of the county Democratic political boss, Lanier had a penchant both for accumulating power and for sexually assaulting women who came to his chambers. With his brother as county prosecutor, the judge apparently believed the law could not touch him.
He had not counted on the federal Ku Klux Klan Act, which was enacted 122 years ago to give federal officials authority to prosecute Southern sheriffs after the Civil War and has been widely used since then to prosecute local officials for all variety of misdeeds when local authorities would not do so.
A federal grand jury indicted Lanier on 11 counts involving sexual assaults, including two rapes. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Last January, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati threw out the case against him and ordered him freed. Why? Because, the court held, there is no "general constitutional right to be free of sexual assault" by public officials.
Now the case has advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court and the stakes are much greater than the fate of one judge. The law that enabled federal authorities, for example, to prosecute the two Los Angeles Police Department officers for violating Rodney G. King's civil rights, could lose some of its teeth.
Unless the appeals court opinion is reversed, those who are raped or sexually assaulted by police, prison guards or other local officials could be left with no legal protection.
Lanier, the son of the county Democratic political boss here, had served for 14 years as city mayor when he won election in 1982 as the county judge, a perch from which he decided everything from divorce and child custody disputes to workers' compensation claims.
"This is a small county and he had power over people from cradle to grave," said police inspector Joey McDowell.
Lanier also had a tendency, however, to assault women who came to his chambers. Since his brother, James O. Lanier, was elected county prosecutor in 1990, Judge Lanier apparently felt immune from prosecution even as stories about his predatory behavior multiplied.
Some of the stories involved court employees or young women who came for job interviews. One involved a woman with a custody case in Lanier's court. Still others involved clerks for local lawyers whose duties required delivering papers to the courthouse.
They testified that the tall, portly judge had pressed himself against them and grabbed their breasts or crotch. Several said that he had exposed himself under his black robe and demanded oral sex.
The worst incident involved Vivian Forsythe Archie, a young woman who had recently divorced and desperately needed a job if she was going to keep custody of her child. A high school friend of Lanier's daughter, she went to see the judge about a job.
Near the end of the interview, Lanier grabbed her, tried to kiss her and pressed her into a chair. Then he forced her to to engage in an oral sex act.
The young woman, crying and frightened, fled from his chambers but told no one what had happened until interviewed by an FBI agent.
Taking the witness stand in his defense, the jowly judge with a graying pompadour explained that women found him attractive.
"I have never forced myself on any woman at any time," he said. "I'm a hugging type person."
Lanier was serving his 25-year prison term when, in a decision almost as shocking in its own way as Lanier's conduct, the U.S. Court of Appeals threw out the entire case against him and ordered him freed.
"The indictment in this case for a previously unknown, undeclared and undefined constitutional crime cannot be allowed to stand," wrote Judge Gilbert S. Merritt of Nashville, a prominent Democrat appointed by President Carter. "We conclude that sexual assaults may not be prosecuted as violations of a constitutional . . . right to bodily integrity."
This no doubt would come as a surprise to prison guards, schoolteachers, police officers and Border Patrol agents, all of whom have been charged over the past 20 years under federal law for sexual assaults involving persons in their custody.
Judges, however, are different, the Cincinnati-based appeals court said, because there was "no notice to the public" that the same rule applied to them. Lanier's conviction had originally been affirmed by a three-judge panel of the court but it was reversed on a 9-6 vote by the full court.
The reversal drew several scorching dissents.
Calling the Lanier matter "one of the most deplorable cases to come before this court," Judge Damon Keith of Detroit faulted his colleagues both for "a preposterous result" and for "the insensitive tone and lack of compassion permeating the majority opinion."