Friday, December 27, 2002
Judge’s References to Defendants as Nazis Did Not Require Reversal—C.A.
By ROGER GRACE, Editor
A trial judge’s posttrial comments likening the cross-defendants to Nazis did not reveal such bias as to give rise to a reversal, the Court of Appeal in Santa Ana has ruled.
The unpublished opinion, filed Monday, upholds an injunction issued by Orange Superior Court Judge James M. Brooks, barring Fernwood Mobile Home Park in Stanton from enforcing rules — such as barring ball-tossing except in a designated play area — aimed at discouraging tenancy by families with children. While affirming, Justice Kathleen O’Leary, in her majority opinion for the Fourth District’s Div. Three, expressed disapproval as to Brooks’ “inappropriate and insensitive posttrial expressions of opinion regarding the nature of appellants’ conduct in operating and managing a mobilehome park.”
Justice Richard D. Fybel dissented, saying:
“The issue in this case is: Did the trial court meet the standard of fairness and the appearance of impartiality when it repeatedly equated enforcement of rules of a mobilehome park with the conduct of the Nazis? For fairness and impartiality to have any meaning, the answer to this question should be a resounding no.”
Brooks, in the course of his remarks, referred to the trailer park as “a Nazi camp,” termed the management “park Nazis.” He said of the investors in Fernwood:
“I thought of all those nice folks in Germany saying ‘What oven’? ‘What Jewish problem’? ‘What camps’? ‘We smell nothing. This is dust settling on us.’ That offended the hell out of me that these nice people come in, they were nice people, came in, testified, ‘We didn’t know what’s going on, we didn’t,’ and that’s fine. I understand they’re investors, but they’ve got to know what’s going on.”
O’Leary, who was joined by Acting Presiding Justice William Bedsworth, said that a “painstaking review of the entire record” revealed “no hint of judicial bias or prejudice affecting the outcome.”
She stressed that the appellants’ claim of judicial bias was based on “the court’s posttrial comments.” While acknowledging that a 1992 decision reversed a judgment based on comments in an oral statement of decision, she said “[t]he timing of the judge’s remarks is significant.”
The jurist wrote:
“The trial judge communicated that he was immensely offended by conduct of the defendants and injustices revealed in the evidence at trial. A biased judge is unable to impartially react to the evidence presented due to preconceived notions as to gender, race, ethnicity, or other characteristics of the parties. It can be said that such a judge renders a decision based on who you are rather than on what you have done. There is no evidence in this record upon which to conclude the judge held such prejudices or was predisposed as to any of the issues. The gravamen of the remarks is not that they indicate bias against a party or parties in the lawsuit, but rather that they reflect an ignorance of or insensitivity to the enormity of the Holocaust.”
She went on to say:
“This record indicates the trial judge did not consider how comparisons of the conduct in this case to the conduct of the Nazis would trivialize the suffering of the Jews and others singled out for persecution. That was thoughtless and unfortunate. But it does not suggest either a group or individual bias against a party, and there is nothing before us which would undermine our confidence in the fairness of the trial.”
Fybel said in his dissent that Brooks’ remarks “cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the administration of justice,” calling for reversal. He recited:
“The Nazis committed genocide, murdering millions of innocent children, women, and men in the Holocaust. The Nazis caused World War II in which American and Allied soldiers and others died. The trial court in this case equated Nazis to mobilehome park operators who had restrictive rules about noise and where children could play.”
Brooks was elected to the Central Orange Municipal Court in 1986, and served two terms as the court’s presiding judge. He weathered an election challenge in 1992, and ran unsuccessfully for the Orange Superior Court in 1996 on a platform of “tough sentences for three-strikes offenders, gang criminals or any defendant who preys upon women, children or the elderly.”
The judge became a member of the Superior Court upon unification of Orange County’s courts in 1998.
The case is Fernwood Mobile Home Park vs. Almeyda, G029345.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company