Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Max Kelch's chair sat noticeably vacant Tuesday, the first day the court has met for oral arguments since his abrupt resignation on the heels of an ethics complaint.

Specifics have yet to come out, though the complaint has been described as in line with the #MeToo movement in which women have come forward in growing numbers to shine a light on sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

Kelch, a 60-year-old who has been on the state's highest court for two years, shed no light in his resignation letter last month to Gov. Pete Ricketts, saying only: "After much deliberation, I have decided it is best for my family to submit my resignation."

In a story published Sunday, the Omaha World-Herald quoted anonymous sources who said Kelch had a "strange, at-times suggestive manner," sometimes stood too close and made inappropriate, sexual comments to women.

He wouldn't be the first judge to step down under such a cloud. In December, 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski retired in California following more than a dozen reports of sexual misconduct or inappropriate comments.

Here in Nebraska, Ricketts' office this week confirmed knowing of an ethics complaint against Kelch, something few people have knowledge of given the secretive process by which they are handled in Nebraska and elsewhere.

While anyone can bring a complaint to the Commission on Judicial Qualifications about the conduct or qualifications of any state judge, rarely do the allegations ever see the light of day.

By law, they are confidential until the commission completes an investigation and finds probable cause to warrant discipline, which seldom happens.

Last year, while 82 new complaints were filed, only 11 led to informal inquiries and five to preliminary investigations.

On average, 98 percent of them get dismissed, according to a report released last month by the Judicial Branch.

The most recent public reprimand, filed Jan. 23, coincidentally the same day Kelch sent the governor his resignation letter, came against Douglas County Judge Lawrence Barrett, who had allowed a woman to enter a guilty plea despite being too intoxicated to know what she was doing.

Before that, it had been nearly four years since a Nebraska judge had been publicly reprimanded.

Monday, Ricketts' spokesman, Taylor Gage, said it was Kelch himself who informed the governor about a complaint in a Jan. 16 phone conversation.

"Judge Kelch subsequently stepped down," Gage said.

The resignation is effective Feb. 15.

Since the Nebraska Supreme Court released word of Kelch's resignation in a news release two weeks ago, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers has been raising questions in the Judicial Committee and on the floor of the Legislature.

"I'm going to write the Chief Justice a letter and I'm going to say 'Chief, you can hide the fire, but what are you going to do with the smoke?" he said late last week on the floor. "And when there's so much smoke attending the departure of this judge, it doesn't just affect him, it infects the integrity of the Nebraska Supreme Court.'"

The Supreme Court hasn't gotten a letter from him yet.

But, Chambers said Tuesday he had a hunch about the resignation almost from the day it was announced and was talking about it more than he would if someone was doing something about it.

"But when it's that stone-cold silence, that's circling the wagons and protecting whoever the miscreant is," he said.

During a filibuster, Chambers said he thinks Ricketts knew or didn't properly vet Kelch.

But, Gage said: "The first the governor became aware of any concern was when Judge Kelch contacted the governor to say there was a complaint filed against him."

No one raised issues at the Judicial Nomination Committee hearing before Ricketts appointed him to the Supreme Court on Feb. 3, 2016.

By then, Kelch already had been a judge for more than 10 years, first a county court judge for Cass, Sarpy and Otoe counties, then a district court judge. Before that, he was the Otoe county attorney.

Attempts to reach him for comment have gone unanswered.

The Judicial Nominating Commission will hold a public hearing in Papillion on March 12 to begin the process to replace him.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

Reporter JoAnne Young contributed to this report.

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