Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Testimony at Misconduct Hearing Discloses:
Judge Kevin Ross Drew Private Discipline Three Years Ago
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Ross drew private discipline three years ago for “demeaning and humiliating” defendants in his courtroom by having them explain their actions to a visiting elementary school class.
The advisory, or “stinger,” letter was disclosed yesterday as Ross testified for the second day at a hearing on more recent misconduct charges by the Commission on Judicial Performance.
The defendants in question were in court because they had previously failed to appear and had warrants issued for their arrest. Ross acknowledged yesterday that he asked two of the defendants to explain why they failed to come to court and to answer questions from the students before recalling the warrants.
The commission expressed concern in its letter that the judge had not only mistreated the defendants, but had made it appear that the recall of the warrants was conditional on their willingness to participate in what Ross described as an effort to teach “life lessons” to the youngsters. Ross said he now accepts that his actions were inappropriate.
‘Life and Times’
The judge was unapologetic, however, with regard to the commission’s claim that he violated the ban on comment on pending cases during four of his appearances on KCET TV’s “Life and Times Tonight” program.
Ross, who has appeared dozens of times to talk about law-related topics on the nightly show, is alleged to have improperly commented on a juvenile court case he was handling during his assignment to Compton; on the case of Patrick Ghilotti, a serial rapist who claims that he no longer predisposed to commit such crimes and should no longer be held as sexually violent predator; and—on two occasions—on the case of Inglewood police officers Jeremy Morse and Bijan Darvish, who were unsuccessfully prosecuted in connection with an alleged assault on a local teenager.
Ross said he was aware at all times of Canon 3B(9) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which generally prohibits a judge from publicly discussing a case pending in any court. He acknowledged that the three cases were pending at the time he discussed them on the television program.
But he insisted that his comments did not violate the “intent” of the rule, citing Broadman v. Commission on Judicial Performance (1998) 18 Cal. 4th 1079. There, the Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment challenge to the predecessor of Canon 3B(9), saying the comment ban serves the interest of justice.
High Court Ruling
The high court explained that “public comments by judges on matters pending before them may give the appearance that the judge has prejudged the merits of the controversy, has become an advocate for the interests of one of the parties, or has resorted to extrajudicial means to defend the judge’s own rulings.”
The justices added that “[a]s applied to comments on matters pending before another judge, the former canon prevents a judge from exerting, or appearing to exert, pressure on another judge to decide a matter a particular way.”
None of the comments he made, Ross said, were of the type described in the high court language. He told the masters that if the canon were to be construed as prohibiting judges from simply explaining cases in order to educate the public, it would infringe upon the First Amendment, and he vigorously rejected any suggestion that his comments constituted prejudicial misconduct.
Ross also testified yesterday about his participation in a pilot for a proposed television reality series called “Mobile Court.” The concept was to have a “judge” go to the scenes of various neighborhood disputes and hold “court” on the spot, hearing two or three cases per 30-minute program and rendering decisions.
Ross was identified on the program as “Judge Kevin Ross,” and the producers who attempted to sell the series in syndication said they identified him as an actual Los Angeles Superior Court judge in order to enhance the program’s credibility.
Ross’ participation, the CJP charges, violated several ethical rules, including the requirement that judges uphold the dignity of their offices, the ban on using the office to advance private interests, and the prohibition against participation in private arbitrations and mediations.
The masters yesterday viewed a tape of the pilot, in which Ross resolved a quarrel between two neighbors who accused each other of vandalizing each others’ cars, then moved on to a strip joint to decide whether a contestant had been unfairly disqualified from a “Miss Wet on the Net” contest.
Ross ruled she had and awarded her $1,000.
The latter segment caused some smiles in the real-life courtroom yesterday as the “plaintiff” explained that the contest included a “wet T-shirt” competition along with a “wet spelling bee” in which contestants were required to spell “titillate” but had trouble getting past the first three letters.
Ross sat stoically, his jaw somewhat clenched, as he watched himself attempt to maintain order by warning “this may be a gentleman’s club but you’re in my court now.”
Asked by commission attorney Jack Coyle following the viewing whether he thought “that the strip club court was dignified,” Ross admitted that he “had some concerns” after he saw the tape. “This isn’t necessarily what I had in mind” when he agreed to the project, he said.
While he turned over the $5,000, less taxes, that he earned for the pilot to the court, he acknowledged that he stood to make a substantial amount of money—$7,500 per episode for the first year, $10,000 per episode for the second, and up to $50,000 per year in bonuses, or a maximum of $555,000 for two 26-episode seasons—had the efforts to syndicate the program succeeded.
Ross admitted that by awarding money that was actually to be paid to the participants, he violated the rule against judicial participation in private dispute resolution, although he said he didn’t realize it at the time.
Testimony continues in the case today and is expected to conclude by Friday.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company