Thursday, May 27, 2004
Sensitivity Trainer Says Judge Now More Understanding
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A family therapist who has been providing Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Harris with sensitivity training testified yesterday that the jurist now understands the impact his comments can have on women.
Harris, Alyce LaViolette explained to the special masters hearing misconduct charges against the judge, did not realize that people who work in the court system view a judge as a powerful figure “even if he’s affable and low key.”
But after 12 sessions with him, she said, she is now convinced that he sees the “subtleties” of how “his power might affect other people.”
LaViolette, who said she works primarily with men who have been involved in domestic violence, testified on the third 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.
The hearing is to continue today and is expected to conclude tomorrow. The masters will then report their findings to the commission, which could impose an admonishment or censure or remove the judge from the bench.
LaViolette, who said she was sought out by Harris’ attorney, testified that she took on the assignment with some reluctance. When she first read the charges, including that the judge persisted in efforts to invite women attorneys who regularly appeared before him to lunch and commented on a court official’s anatomy while staring at her rear end, “I said, ‘Whoa, I’m not sure I even want to do this,’” she told the panel.
But after working with him, the therapist said, she’s convinced of his understanding and sincerity.
She described Harris, a judicial officer for nearly three decades, as “a gregarious guy” whose “effusive” style “always seemed to serve him well.” But she found that the judge—whose daughter graduated from Harvard Law School and now lives in Rome and works for Italy’s highest court—had “not a lot of insight” about how women lawyers react to a male judge.
One thing he didn’t understand, she said, is that women attorneys may be very comfortable and assertive in court and still not wish to communicate directly how uncomfortable they are with, for example, a lunch invitation from a male judge. But now, she explained, he understands that “less than no means no.”
Harris, she concluded, “did not intend to harass these women.”
Under cross-examination by CJP lawyer Andrew S. Blum, LaViolette acknowledged that she has not worked with a judge before and has limited knowledge of courtroom dynamics. She also admitted that she had not spoken to any of the women who complained and said her opinions might be different if she had.
But she reiterated her belief in the judge’s sincerity, saying he was “seriously open with me” and candid in assessing his weaknesses as well as his strengths.
Blum yesterday rested the case against Harris by calling three witnesses. Among them was Deputy City Attorney Matthew Schoenbrun, who confirmed the allegation that Harris had introduced him to a couple of young women—apparently daughters of friends of the judge—and had continued to hear Schoenbrun’s cases without disclosing that he was trying to play matchmaker.
Schoenbrun said he did not feel that the judge was pressuring him, adding that a courtroom disclosure of the situation would have made him quite uncomfortable.
Yesterday’s afternoon session was taken up with character witnesses called on Harris’ behalf, including Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Stephen D. Petersen, James Kaddo, and Michael Harwin and retired Judges Gilbert Alston and Barnet Cooperman.
They, along with several lawyers, a court clerk, and a court reporter, extolled Harris as a gentleman who treats lawyers, litigants, staff members, and fellow jurists with courtesy and respect and said that the allegations of sexism and insensitivity are inconsistent with what they have heard and observed.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company