Friday, February 28, 2003
Superior Court Judge Removed for Making Sarcastic Remarks
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday ordered Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis removed from office, saying it would not tolerate the 16-year jurist continuing to insult lawyers, staff members and jurors in open court.
“The commission is of the opinion that it is not only likely, but close to a certainty that Judge Van Voorhis, if allowed to remain on the bench, will continue to violate the Code of Judicial Ethics,” the CJP said in an 8-2 decision signed by its chairperson, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Rise Jones Pichon.
“This conclusion is compelled by Judge Van Voorhis’s failure to appreciate the inappropriateness and importance of his manner of acting, his defense to the allegations, his statements to the masters, his failure to present any evidence of steps taken to avoid future violations, and his oral presentation to the commission,” the commission continued.
Van Voorhis now has 30 days in which to petition the California Supreme Court for review of the removal order. In the meantime, he retains his title and salary, but cannot hear cases.
The former Alameda County prosecutor spent most of his career hearing misdemeanors, first as a municipal court judge and then in the Walnut Creek branch of the unified Superior Court. He also occasionally sat at the county seat in Martinez, but a former presiding judge of the court said his utility there was limited because each stint he did there created the need for a new round of “problem-solving.”
He had been limited to civil matters since last October, when prosecutors said they would file blanket affidavits of prejudice because Van Voorhis was a “judicial bully” who targeted young female prosecutors for abuse because he thought they would not stand up to him.
The judge told the commission last December that he had a tendency to be more visibly emotive than most people, and that “I think I show more of my feelings the longer I stay” in office. He said he had not acted in bad faith, but was honestly trying to encourage the targets of his barbs to perform better.
The commission described Van Voorhis’ conduct as, among other things, “condescending, disrespectful and contemptuous” and as “undignified, discourteous, and sarcastic.”
The judge engaged in willful misconduct and brought his court into disrepute by, among other things, suggesting that an Ecuadorian-born deputy public defender “lose that accent” and telling a rookie prosecutor after a trial that he had intentionally excluded admissible evidence in order to see how she would handle it, the commission said.
Given the judge’s frank admission that his conduct has gotten worse over time, and the fact that he has been previously warned, the commission said it had no alternative but to remove him.
The commission noted that he drew discipline in 1992 and 1994 for similar offenses, and that he was warned by his presiding judge in 1999 that he needed to take anger management classes. Despite those admonitions, the commission said, the judge had not taken any steps to deal with what the special masters who heard evidence in the case called his “serious problem with judicial temperament and self-control.”
Third District Court of Appeal Justice Vance Raye and public member of the commission Ramona Ripston dissented from the removal order, saying Van Voorhis should have been censured rather than removed.
‘Not Warm and Fuzzy’
Raye acknowledged that the judge “is not a warm and fuzzy individual,” but said that removal should generally be limited to cases of corruption. A judge or potential judge’s “lack of congeniality” is a matter for the governor who is considering an appointment, or the voters, rather than the commission, to consider.
The commission has historically held that censure is sufficient punishment for conduct similar to Van Voorhis,’ Raye noted.
Ripston said she generally agreed with Raye. While the commission may been too lenient in the past, for example when it held that censure was sufficient punishment for a judge with a history of racist remarks about blacks, “our precedent retains a certain value and wisdom” which the majority seemed willing to abandon, Ripston said.
The commission found that Van Voorhis:
•Excluded statements made to the police by a drunk driving defendant, then told the deputy district attorney, who had been a lawyer less than three months, after the trial that the statements were really admissible;
•Demeaned the same prosecutor by instructing her, after the judge sustained an objection to a question about the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, to tell the jurors that the test “doesn’t mean anything” and by later overruling her relevancy objection to a defense question and ordering her to tell the jury that the evidence was relevant;
•Made similar remarks to another rookie prosecutor, suggesting after she asked a defendant whether he was on probation that she was “just guessing” that the evidence was admissible and that she “could be in a lot of trouble” if she wasn’t “more careful in my courtroom” and would have to “tangle” with him if she didn’t abide by his rulings;
•Scolded a defense attorney in another case by, among other things, telling him to ask “the question that you learned in law school was a legitimate question”;
•Told a prosecutor in another drunk driving case that he would not allow an officer to testify about the nystagmus test unless the officer qualified as an expert, then said that she would have “wasted a lot of time” if she unsuccessfully attempted to qualify him and suggested to the jury that she was incompetent;
•Made inappropriate remarks to Deputy Public Defender Elvear Alvarez about his accent, commenting in open court that while it was “charming,” the lawyer might want to “lose” it if he hoped to communicate with the jury;
•Yelled at a clerk because files hadn’t yet been brought to court, then later in the day yelled at her again because some defendants were in another courtroom when they were supposed to be in his;
•Criticized another clerk in open court for taking 20 seconds of court time to swear in the bailiff to take charge of the jurors, suggesting that the matter could have been handled silently and off the record;
•Yelled at a deputy sheriff in open court because an apparent clerical error had resulted in a defendant not being brought to court, suggesting that the bailiff explain to the deputy how to do his job; and
•Criticized the grammar with which a jury question was asked, resulting in letters of complaint from two of the jurors.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company