Friday, February 20, 2004
Judge Harris Charged With Judicial Misconduct
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John D. Harris sought to establish personal relationships with sexual assault victims, made inappropriately personal comments to jurors, attorneys, and court staff, threw a file at a deputy city attorney, and lied during an investigation into his conduct, a judicial watchdog body asserted yesterday.
The Commission on Judicial Performance said it has charged Harris with five counts of misconduct.
The CJP’s notice of charges also reveals that Harris was transferred to South Gate last April, where he now hears limited jurisdiction matters, after Superior Court officials advised him of complaints about his behavior.
Through a staff member in his South Gate courtroom Harris, who was elected to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1984 and to the Superior Court in 1998, referred calls about the charges to his attorney, Edward P. George of Long Beach. George noted Harris’ length of service on the bench—Harris served as a Los Angeles Municipal Court Commissioner before being elected a judge of that court—and said he has an “outstanding reputation.”
“It’s most unfortunate that some of his humor, which was well intentioned, could be misinterpreted.”
Then-Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Harris to the Municipal Court seat to which he had already been elected in October of 1984, allowing him to take the bench a few months before his elected term began in January 1985.
Harris filed for reelection in November of last year two days before the filing period ended. He was the last incumbent to file, and Deputy District Attorney John Nantroup Jr. had filed to run for the seat earlier in the day.
Nantroup later dropped out of the race, saying he did not want to oppose a sitting judge. Since no one filed to run against him, Harris’ name will not appear on the March 2 primary ballot, but an opponent could still mount a write-in campaign against him in the November general election.
In the 1998 election he defeated Superior Court Commissioner William R. Torres. He was a Los Angeles deputy city attorney for 13 years before his election to the Municipal Court.
The CJP alleges that after two felony sexual assault trials in 2000, Harris met in chambers with the victims and sought to initiate personal relationships. One of the victims was only 16 years old, the notice of charges points out, and the Court of Appeal cited the meeting in ordering the defendant resentenced by a different judge.
On eight occasions in 2002 and 2003, the CJP claims, the judge made comments to or about female attorneys, court staff members, or jurors that were inappropriately flirtatious or sexual. The comments included invitations to have lunch, a remark that a staff member was “cute,” and thanking a lawyer for not challenging an attractive female juror because “[a] judge has to have something to look at during trial.”
The most recent incident, the CJP alleges, took place in October, after the judge had already been notified that he was being investigated. Harris remarked to a female security officer screening visitors for weapons at the South Gate courthouse, “Let’s go to chambers so you can search me,” the CJP’s notice asserts.
The file-throwing incident, the CJP alleges, took place in October 2002 and involved Deputy City Attorney Chadd Kim. After the incident, the judge “continued to be abrupt and impatient with Ms. Kim,” and he later exhibited anger when Kim filed a peremptory challenge preventing him from hearing another case, the notice claims.
Harris also recommended women to a male deputy city attorney for dates and failed to disqualify himself or disclose their relationship when the lawyer appeared before him, the CJP said.
The CJP said Harris lied when he stated, in his response to a preliminary investigation letter sent to him in August, that he had never been “counseled, criticized or reprimanded” concerning his conduct by court officials.
In fact, the CJP alleges, Judge Carol Rehm Jr., then the Criminal Courts assistant supervising judge, spoke with Harris in December of 2002, advising him of concerns about his “interactions with young, female attorneys.”
Four months later, the notice relates, Harris met with Presiding Judge Robert A. Dukes, Assistant Presiding Judge William McLaughlin, then-Criminal Courts Supervising Judge Dan Oki, and Rehm to discuss the complaints about his conduct again. At that time the judge was told he would be transferred to South Gate, the CJP said.
George said Harris will file an answer denying the allegations by the March 4 deadline.
“We’re going to fight it to the end,” he said.
George called Harris an outgoing and cheerful jurist before whom attorneys enjoy appearing.
“People like to be in his courtroom,” the attorney said.
He said the allegations are founded on misinterpretations of Harris’ behavior. Harris will not seek a leave of absence from the court, George said.
“He intends to fulfill his duties,” the lawyer declared.
The CJP said a hearing will be conducted on the charges before a panel of special masters appointed by the state Supreme Court. No date for the hearing has been set.
The CJP is made up of three judges, two lawyers, and six non-attorney public members.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company