Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Four Women Testify That Antics of Judge Embarrassed Them
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Four women—a deputy city attorney, a deputy alternate public defender, a court administrator, and a judicial officer—testified yesterday that they were embarrassed as a result of courthouse interactions with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Harris.
The women gave their accounts on the second day of a hearing before Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Eileen Moore, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Patrick Morris, and Ventura Superior Court Judge Henry J. Walsh. The three are sitting as special masters hearing charges brought by the Commission on Judicial Performance against Harris, 69.
Central Arraignment Court Division Chief Bettina Rodriguez, a 23-year court employee, said she was outraged as a result of an incident that occurred in January of last year when Harris came to her courthouse one afternoon last year to fill in for an absent judicial officer.
When Harris arrived, she explained, she was informally dressed because she was returning from her usual lunch-hour walk. While she usually goes to a Sheriff’s Department locker room to change, she explained, upon seeing Harris and Commissioner Kristi Lousteau, she went over to introduce herself and to show the judge to his chambers.
When she apologized for her attire, she testified, Harris stepped around towards her back side, glared at her rear end as she turned her head to glance over her shoulder, and said either “it looks OK to me” or “it looks good to me.” At that point, she said, “I made eye contact with” Lousteau and giggled out of embarrassment.
She tried to change the subject, she said, as Harris stepped back in front of her. Harris, she said, then touched her cheeks and made ‘kind of a gesture of a pinch” before saying “you’re so cute.” At that point, Rodriguez testified, “I wanted to get out of there, so I excused myself” without saying anything.
Rodriguez said she reported the incident to her supervisor, and also had a later conversation with Lousteau. The commissioner’s response, she said, was that “you need to watch yourself with [Harris], he’s known to do these kinds of things.”
In response to questions from the masters, Rodriguez emphatically denied that the incident occurred as Harris testified Monday. The judge claimed that he innocently told Rodriguez that “you look good” and that he required no apology because “it’s your courthouse,” and denied looking at her buttocks.
Lousteau, who was acting supervising judge at the arraignment court at the time, largely confirmed Rodriguez’s account. While she cannot specifically recall whether Harris actually moved his feet or merely turned his head toward the back of the division chief’s anatomy, Lousteau said, there wasn’t any doubt in her mind that the judge was looking at Rodriguez’s “derriere area.”
Rodriguez’s “face reddened,” the commissioner said, adding “I was a little shocked.” Lousteau confirmed that she later told Rodriguez that she “had heard that Judge Harris had a proclivity to have inappropriate contacts with women.”
Presiding Judge’s Testimony
Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Dukes testified earlier in the day that he had heard similar comments about Harris from former colleagues on the Los Angeles Municipal Court, where Harris was a referee, commissioner, and judge for over 20 years before his election to the Superior Court in 1998.
The other women to testify they had negative experiences with Harris were Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Chadd Kim and Deputy Alternate Public Defender Jean Costanza.
Kim said she was “angry and embarrassed” after Harris threw a file towards her on one occasion and took a verbal shot at her on another.
Kim explained that she appeared twice before Harris, whom she had never previously met, while assigned to a unit that, among other things, prosecutes misdemeanor violations of the Revenue and Taxation Code. The two cases before Harris were pretrial matters involving defendants accused of selling untaxed cigarettes.
In the first matter, Kim said, Harris forced her to repeat her name and the title of her unit, after she had already stated it. Then he told her he couldn’t find the complaint in the file, and tossed it about feet in her direction, using what she described as a sidearm motion.
“I was shocked,” she said. There was no movement in the courtroom for about six seconds, she said, before she broke the tension by going over to pick up the file.
The complaint, she said, was right where one could expect to find it. She “didn’t understand how a bench officer could behave in the manner he did,” she said, but took no action because she was inclined to give Harris the benefit of the doubt until the next time she appeared in his court, also on a bootleg cigarette case.
After she announced the disposition of the case that a fellow prosecutor had negotiated, essentially a suspended sentence with forfeiture of the cigarettes, Harris questioned why the disposition was so lenient. She explained that the defendant was homeless and had no money, so the prosecution was primarily interested in making sure the cigarettes would be destroyed rather than in collecting a fine.
What happened next, she said, was not a misguided attempt at humor, as Harris claimed Monday, but a “sarcastic” statement designed to “get at me personally”—Harris asking her if she intended to smoke the cigarettes herself.
She was so upset, she said, that the next time she had a case before Harris, she filed a disqualification declaration under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.6. After she did that, she said, Harris took a “last final jab” by asking the prosecutor on the next case if that attorney was going to “file a paper” against him and assuring her that he “was very selective” and wouldn’t throw anything at her, as he had at Kim earlier.
Costanza said she was so embarrassed by Harris’ persistent efforts to get her to go to lunch with him, and so frustrated by the failure of her efforts to “politely turn him down,” that she reported the situation to her supervisor and asked to be removed from all cases with the judge.
When she began discussing the problem with friends, she said, she was told that three women who were deputy public defenders “had the same issues” with Harris.
One witness favorable to Harris did testify yesterday. Karen Durso, the judge’s court reporter when he was assigned to Van Nuys for more than a year, described him as an “excellent” judge to work for. She said he never said anything demeaning or sexist in her presence and never made her feel uncomfortable in any way.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company