Monday, March 28, 2005
Harris ‘Surprised’ at Admonishment, Says He May Enter Private Judging
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John D. Harris yesterday expressed disappointment with the decision of the Commission on Judicial Performance to admonish him for misconduct during the last years of his 30-year judicial tenure.
“I was very surprised the commission failed to follow the findings...and conclusions of the special masters” who heard testimony from about 60 witnesses over a five-day period last May and rejected most of the allegations of misconduct, the jurist said.
The public admonishment issued Thursday is the mildest form of public discipline the commission is authorized to impose. In its 9-0 decision, the commission said the publicity garnered by the case, as well “the impact [Harris’] misconduct had on the judicial system,” justified a public, rather than a private, admonishment.
Commission Vice Chairman Marshall Grossman, a Century City attorney, recused himself, and there is one vacancy on the 11-member commission.
After four years of investigation and hearings, Harris said, “I’m gratified the matter is over, but I’m disappointed the commission gave so little weight to the [views] of the masters who had over 49 years of judicial experience and weighed the credibility of the witnesses.”
It is sad, Harris said, that after 31 years as a court commissioner and judge, that career “has closed at such a low point.” But he said he was looking forward to the future and to performing “some kind of service to the community in order to return the benefits I received” during his tenure as a bench officer.
Harris told the CJP he has not applied, and will not apply, for judicial assignments, which the commission treated as a mitigating factor in Thursday’s decision. But he is eagerly considering a stab at private judging, although he has not yet contacted any provider organizations, he said.
In its decision, the commission found that Harris had engaged in five instances of prejudicial misconduct and five instances of improper action, a lesser level of misconduct.
Harris, the commission said, had improper ex parte discussions with sexual assault victims, made inappropriate comments to attorneys and court staff, threw a file at a deputy city attorney, and acted inappropriately in trying to set up dates for a prosecutor who appeared in his courtroom with the daughters of the judges’ friends.
Harris retired in October of last year. He was unopposed for a new six-year term in last year’s elections—filing was in late 2003—but told the masters last spring that he had decided to retire on the 20th anniversary of his appointment to the bench.
Although the commission investigated a number of allegations—Harris said he counted 56—the judge’s attorney, Edward P. George, speculated Friday that the commission would not have instigated action but for two publicized cases in which the judge spoke to sexual assault victims in his chambers after they had given victim impact statements.
The attorney noted that they were the first two cases of that type handled by Harris—a municipal court commissioner and judge for more than 24 years before his election to the Superior Court in 1998.
In the first case, Harris said he was trying “to offer support, to offer strength, to offer compassion” to the 16-year-old victim when he invited her to join him in his chambers after he sentenced her uncle to 16 years in prison for having continuously abused her between the ages of six and 12. The prosecutor was invited in as well, but did not come in, the judge said.
Harris said he told her she was brave to testify and that the jury must have believed her. When she responded that what saddened her most was that she had “lost” her grandparents—who wanted nothing to do with her after she testified against their son—Harris said he “offered to be her grandfather.”
That was, the judge explained, “a gratuitous statement” made “in a kindly sort of way.” He certainly had no intent of replacing her grandparents or making her part of his family, he explained, although he did give her his business card and offered to write a letter of recommendation when the time came for her to apply to colleges.
The commission, however, found there was no reason for the conversation to have taken place.
The other case involved an attorney, whose name has never been publicly disclosed—California law allows sexual assault victims to be referred to by pseudonym throughout court proceedings—who received a dinner invitation from the judge.
The incident was portrayed in news accounts as a possible effort by Harris to initiate a social relationship with the woman, a characterization rejected by the masters.
But the commission, while acknowledging that the judge “may have been motivated by compassion for the victim,” said his actions, including his advising the woman to call if there was anything he could do to help, “could raise questions in the mind of an objective observer regarding the judge’s impartiality in the pending case.”
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company