Friday, April 8, 2005
CJP Reports Disposing of More Than 1,000 Cases Last Year
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance disposed of more than 1,000 complaints against California judges last year, it said in its annual report released yesterday.
The commission said it disposed of a total of 1,080 complaints, of which 993 were closed after initial review and 87 referred to commission staff for further inquiry or preliminary investigation.
Of those 87 cases, 25 resulted in discipline, two were closed following the judge’s resignation or retirement, and 60 were closed without discipline. Of the 25 cases in which discipline was imposed, one resulted in removal, three in public admonishment, eight in private admonishment, and 13 in the issuance of advisory or “stinger” letters.
The removal case was that of Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis, whom the commission ordered removed in 2003 for abusive conduct towards attorneys who practiced before him. The case was included in the 2004 report, the CJP explained, because the removal order did not become final until the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in March of last year.
Of the 25 cases resulting in discipline, eight involved improper demeanor or decorum or inappropriate humor, six the on-bench abuse of authority, five bias or the appearance of bias for or against particular individuals not based on race or other group identification, five ex parte communications, and three retaliation against attorneys who had disqualified judges or disclosed grounds for disqualification.
In addition, three judges were disciplined for delaying decisions or being absent from or late to court and two for abuse of the contempt or sanctions powers. Other grounds for which discipline was imposed included failure to cooperate with the commission, comment on a pending case, misuse of court resources, improper use of office stationery, group bias or the appearance thereof, administrative malfeasance, and improper political activities.
As part of the report, the commission each year summarizes the conduct for which judges received private discipline, with no identification of the court involved.
Conduct for which private admonishments were imposed included tossing a spectator in jail over the lunch hour without following contempt procedures, making disparaging remarks about witnesses and counsel in open court, serving as a private arbitrator, misuse of court computers, sitting in cases involving financial institutions that had cases pending against the judge for unpaid debts, and attempting to deflect responsibility for a ruling onto another judge in order to avoid displeasing the party against whom the admonished judge ruled.
Three judges drew stinger letters for making rude or angry comments toward witnesses or lawyers; two for making comments suggesting that they had pre-decided the outcome of matters before them; two for waiting too long to rule on habeas corpus petitions; one for sending a “difficult litigant” to jail for indirect contempt without following required procedures; one for participating in a public meeting where a case pending before the judge was discussed with several persons, including parties; and one for improperly commenting to a jury about an attorney who had supposedly done a poor job in another case.
One judge drew an advisory letter for correcting a child support order several hours after a hearing even though counsel for the party in whose favor an error was apparently made was not present and was not notified that the judge was considering a change in the order; one for modifying a judgment in response to an improper ex parte communication; and one for presiding over a case in which the judge had an “association” with a party, setting aside a default judgment against that party without notice or hearing, and later—following recusal—making statements apparently designed to influence the decision of the judge to whom the case was reassigned.
The commission also reported concluding 159 cases in which complaints were filed against commissioners and referees. The commission’s rules require that such complaints be referred to the local courts for investigation and imposition of discipline if warranted; the commission then has discretion to determine whether further proceedings are necessary.
In all but three of the cases, the CJP found no need for further action. Those included one case in which the subordinate judicial officer was suspended and seven in which commissioners or referees were warned or reprimanded.
In the three cases in which the commission found a need to act, two subordinate judicial officers who resigned or retired while under investigation had their cases closed after they promised never to seek positions as bench officers again, while one was admonished for issuing an order without required notice and doing so in part on the basis of information that was not properly disclosed to the parties.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company