Tuesday, June 1, 2004
Special Masters Question Portions of CJP’s Case Against Harris
Judge Called ‘Smart, Distinguished’; Charge He Misled Commission Called ‘Bothersome’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The special masters hearing misconduct charges against Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Harris Friday questioned several aspects of the Commission on Judicial Performance’s case against the judge, particularly the claim that Harris sought to mislead the commission.
“This is the most bothersome [charge] of all,” San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Patrick Morris commented, appearing to accept Harris’ explanation as to why he claimed in a letter to the commission in October of last year that “[n]o Supervising Judge has ever spoken to me, counseled, criticized or reprimanded me concerning any of my conduct or behavior towards any person.”
The commission contends that statement was misleading, because Harris had been spoken to by the assistant supervising judge of the criminal courts, and been summoned to a meeting with the presiding judge of the superior court and other officials, about allegations now at the core of the commission proceedings.
Explanation for Comment
Harris contends that his comment, part of a 12-page letter responding to the commission’s notice that it had launched preliminary investigation, was a reference to the totality of his career prior to the events which led to the commission investigation.
Morris, who presided over the five-day hearing along with Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Eileen Moore and Ventura Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh, suggested the comment be read in the context of the letter, which includes a lengthy defense of the judge’s long career.
“I find that he lays out his...best case in presenting himself as a human being and a judge,” Morris said.
“This is a smart, distinguished judge,” the San Bernardino jurist continued. “Why would he go on a fool’s errand” by trying to persuade the commission that the meeting at which Presiding Judge Robert Dukes told him he was being transferred to South Gate and reported to the CJP never occurred, Morris asked commission attorney Andrew S. Blum.
Blum responded that while it was “foolish” for Harris to think that the meeting, and his earlier discussion with Assistant Supervising Judge C.H. Rehm, could be swept under the rug, the letter was still misleading and constituted prejudicial misconduct.
The masters finished hearing evidence in the case on Thursday. Friday’s session was devoted to argument by Blum and by Edward George, who represents Harris.
The hearing will be transcribed. When the transcript is ready—the court reporter estimated it will take two to four weeks—the attorneys will have 30 days to submit proposed findings of fact, and the special masters will then have another 30 days to report their findings to the CJP.
Harris testified Thursday that he has already decided to retire Oct. 29, when he will complete 20 years as a judge and qualify for maximum benefits. He would then be eligible to sit on assignment or work as a court-appointed referee unless the commission votes to bar him from doing so.
Blum argued that the commission had proven several instances of prejudicial misconduct by Harris, including improper ex parte contacts with two victims of sexual abuse.
Harris admitted in his testimony that he should not have met with the victims, a 16-year-old girl and a Century City entertainment lawyer, to offer them comfort and friendship. He did not realize at the time that the cases were not final because of the possibility of appeal, the judge claimed.
Blum appeared willing to accept Harris’ claim that his subsequent offer to have dinner with the lawyer, who was identified in court and before the masters as Jane Doe, was not an effort to establish a romantic relationship.
But it was still improper, Blum argued.
“Whether he sees it as a romantic ‘date’ or just an appointment,” the attorney said, “is a minor tangential point.”
Morris seemed to differ. While the ex parte nature of the contact was “clearly improper,” the judge said, the offer to have dinner with the woman, who had said in her victim impact statement that she had lost the support of her family and friends, was consistent with testimony by some 40 character witnesses that Harris was “filled with empathy and concern for the human condition.”
Moore added that judges are expected to treat witnesses and victims with courtesy and dignity, and asked if it was understandable that Harris would want to assist the woman after she explained that her parents and best friend blamed her for her situation. Blum responded that there is a difference between a judge seeking to get help for a victim and trying to provide it himself.
Blum also urged the panel to make findings of misconduct with respect to other charges, including allegations that Harris offered social invitations to women lawyers who had cases before him. Even if the judge was only trying to be social, Blum insisted, opposing counsel would have every reason to feel “very nervous” about such relationships, creating at least an appearance of impropriety.
Morris asked whether the fact that the lawyers in question were “members of the court family”—public lawyers who appeared regularly before the judge, as opposed to private counsel who would have only occasional cases before him—made a difference. Blum argued there was no difference at all.
There was nothing wrong with Harris going out to lunch or having social get-togethers with groups of lawyers who worked in his court, as testimony indicated he regularly did, Blum said. It was the invitations to meet individually for lunch, or in one instance to go shopping at Christmas time, that created an appearance problem, he said.
“I was a regularly assigned deputy district attorney [in Los Angeles County] for many years,” Blum explained. “I never went out [alone] with a judge.”
George argued that “whatever [acts of] misconduct occurred here were isolated instances in a distinguished judicial career.” He cited testimony from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Phillip Soto, who prior to his appointment to the bench oversaw the County Bar subcommittee that evaluated Harris’ candidacy for the pre-unification Superior Court in 1998.
The subcommittee, Soto testified, sent 200 letters to lawyers who might have known or had cases with Harris, got about 100 responses, and heard no suggestions the judge ever did anything improper.
That, and similar testimony from former Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles President Robert Fink concerning Harris’ evaluation by members of that group, show the type of judge Harris is, George insisted.
“John Harris is a very warm, fuzzy feeling judge” who has always worked hard and earned respect, the attorney said.
George criticized the commission for charging Harris with misconduct for his attempts at humor in court, such as his comment “caveat emptor” after reading a report about a prostitution defendant—whose case had already been disposed of and who was not present in court—indicating she had a “pelvic disorder.”
Such comments should be viewed in the context of a judge handling a busy calendar and trying to maintain a normal sense of humor.
“If you lived in Mr. Blum’s world, judging would be pretty inane...and no one would want to be a judge,” George told the panel.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company