Thursday, August 19, 2004
Panel Rejects Nearly All Charges Against Judge John Harris
‘Oversized Heart,’ Media Inaccuracies Led to Jurist’s Problems, Special Masters Say
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Charges that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John D. Harris sought to establish improper personal relationships with sexual assault victims, threw a file at a deputy city attorney, and lied during an investigation into his conduct were rejected yesterday by a panel of special masters.
Court of Appeal Justice Eileen Moore, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Patrick Morris, and Ventura Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh said attorneys for the Commission on Judicial Performance failed to prove the most serious charges made against Harris at a June hearing.
The panel did sustain charges that he made some inappropriate comments to courthouse workers, but said they were misguided attempts at humor and were not malicious.
“Prior to the incidents involved in these charges,” the three wrote, Harris “enjoyed an exemplary career.
“He has always volunteered his time to the community and to the legal profession. He seems to feel genuine sympathy for the victims of crimes. He is an incredibly empathetic man. He comes across as a man with an oversized heart.”
The masters emphatically rejected “the intimation that Judge John Harris has some sort of improper or unseemly interest in women.”
That perception, they said, “was the consequence of...inaccurate media reports” suggesting the judge attempted to “date” a sexual assault victim who had testified in one of his first felony cases as a judge.
In fact, the panel found, the judge had—as he testified at the hearing—invited the woman, who said she was partially of Jewish ancestry, to have dinner with Harris and his wife on the Jewish Sabbath.
While Harris did violate judicial ethics rules by having ex parte contact with a witness before the defendant’s conviction became final, the masters said, Harris had nothing “but an innocent intention to ease the pain of a victim.”
The CJP claimed that on eight occasions in 2002 and 2003, 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.”
But those events, the masters said, “were funneled through a preconception that Judge Harris had acted inappropriately with women in the past and was doing so again.” In fact, the masters said, they “discerned not even a hint of sexual impropriety or unsuitable intentions regarding women on the part of Judge Harris.”
The masters did find that Harris made an “undignified” comment in October 2003, at the South Gate courthouse to which he was transferred after being 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.”
Such conduct “was not suitable for a judicial officer in a public setting,” the masters said. Weapons screening needs to be taken seriously, they said, especially since the judge’s “joke” delayed the passage of others through the metal detectors.
But while Harris was guilty of taking “a comedic approach” to a serious subject, the panel said, he did not intend to demean or offend anyone, nor did anyone claim to be offended by it.
Neither Harris nor his attorney were available for comment late yesterday.
Harris, who said during the hearing he would retire in October, was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court court by then-Gov. George Deukmejian in 1984, after he had already been elected to an open seat. He was elected to the Superior Court in 1998.
The final decision on whether he will be disciplined, and if so how, is up to the CJP, which is made up of three judges, two lawyers, and six non-attorney public members.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company