Thursday, November 17, 2005
CJP Orders Judge Kevin Ross Removed From Bench
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday ordered Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin A. Ross removed from office, saying he violated defendants’ constitutional rights, made improper comments to the media, used his office in an effort to promote a tasteless concept for a television program, and prevaricated when confronted by the commission about his conduct.
“The evidence...convinces us beyond any doubt that Judge Ross has demonstrated that he lacks the temperament and ability to perform judicial functions in an even-handed manner,” the commission said in a 9-0 decision with one member recused and one recently appointed member not participating
The removal order means that Ross will lose his title, his $149,160-a-year annual salary, and his right to practice law, and can never again serve on the bench, unless the California Supreme Court overturns the commission decision.
Suspended Without Pay
Ross has 30 days to petition the state high court for review, and will be suspended without pay until then. Neither Ross nor his attorney, Edward P. George, returned MetNews phone calls, but Ross issued a statement that was non-committal as to whether he would seek intervention by the Supreme Court.
“Before making a decision as to what course of action, if any, should be contemplated, I will give myself an opportunity to thoroughly examine the seventy-three page document prepared by the Commission,” Ross said in the statement.
“As I have previously indicated, I accept complete responsibility for those specific actions that did not exemplify the highest standards of judicial excellence,” he added.
The commission found that Ross engaged in four instances of willful misconduct—the most serious level of misconduct under the commission’s rules—plus two instances of prejudicial misconduct and one instance of improper action.
“In addition, there is clear and convincing evidence of a pervasive lack of candor and accountability on Judge Ross’s part during the proceedings, compelling the conclusion that he is fundamentally unsuited to be a judge,” the commission wrote.
One finding of willful misconduct involved a traffic defendant, Debra Fuentes, who appeared before Ross in 2003 for arraignment on two traffic citations and on a criminal charge of failing to appear, as to which she had posted bail.
‘Wrong Defendant Declaration’
Fuentes presented a “Wrong Defendant Declaration” indicating that at least one of the citations was issued to someone else. The declaration did not list a case number, but the commission said the first citation listed Fuentes’ date of birth, and a height and weight consistent with hers, while the later citation was apparently issued to someone who was older, taller, and skinnier.
Ross, concluding that the declaration was false, ordered that Fuentes be charged with “false evidence,” citing Vehicle Code Sec. 16030(a), which actually makes it a misdemeanor to provide a peace officer or court clerk with false evidence of insurance.
He set bail and remanded the defendant into custody. Fuentes was released on bail two days later, and all charges were later dismissed.
The judge acted improperly in several respects, the commission found. He invaded the jurisdiction of the prosecutor by adding a new charge, abused his authority by arraigning the defendant without counsel present, and became personally embroiled in the case, the CJP said.
While the judge acknowledged before a panel of special masters that his handling of the case was “a complete error” and a “screw-up” and a total “mess,” the commission found, he falsely told the panel that he took immediate steps to rectify the problem.
While Ross claimed to have told his clerk to contact the master calendar judge to arrange Fuentes’ release the day after he jailed her, the commission found that the master calendar judge did not learn of the case until three days later, when he got a call from the site judge, who had just learned of the case from Ross.
At the time, the commission added, Ross was already under CJP investigation in connection with his handling of three other cases. The commission concluded that by calling the site judge, he was trying to improve his position vis-a-vis the investigation, rather than trying to help Fuentes.
Ross’ claim that he tried unsuccessfully to have Fuentes released prior to her posting bail, but was stymied by court or jail bureaucracy, “reflects Judge Ross’s inability or refusal to confront the reality of his wrongdoing and the seeming ease with which he makes things up,” the commission said.
The commission further found that Ross:
•Engaged in willful misconduct by participating in the filming of a pilot for a television program which was “degrading to the judge and all the participants” and in the course of which his name and title were used for promotional purposes and he arbitrated actual disputes.
Ross acknowledged problems with his 2002 arrangement with a production company for the show, to be called “Mobile Court.” Ross was to resolve small claims cases, with the parties stipulating to be bound by his rulings. What was to distinguish this from other programs of the genre was that the case would be decided at the scene of the dispute, rather than in a simulated courtroom.
In the pilot, Ross went to a city street to resolve a quarrel between two neighbors accused 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.
The commission noted that judges are not allowed to serve as private arbitrators and are prohibited from using their titles and official positions to advance their own private pecuniary interests or anyone else’s.
The CJP also found that Ross was not telling the truth when he told its investigators that he did not realize at the time that his serving as an arbitrator violated the code of conduct, and that his claim that he told the producer not to use his judicial tile in marketing the show and that he expected that request to be honored was “inherently unbelievable.”
•Engaged in improper conduct by having ex parte telephone contact with a defendant who failed to appear for court, altered the court record to buttress his claim that he merely responded to the defendant’s voicemail message after she called the court in a state of panic because she realized she had missed her appearance, and materially misrepresented his actions to the commission.
•Committed willful misconduct by ignoring a defendant’s request for legal counsel “and further violated the defendant’s right to basic due process by his pre-arraignment badgering of [the defendant] until he incriminated himself.”
The defendant in the case, Wilfred Aka, was charged with zoning and other violations as a result of having large-scale religious services in his home. The judge, who as an ex-prosecutor and experienced criminal court judge should have known better, also “violated the defendant’s right to basic due process by his pre-arraignment badgering of Mr. Aka until he incriminated himself,” the commission said, concluding that Ross allowed his actions to be swayed by a number of neighbors of Aka who were presented in court.
•Acted in bad faith and committed prejudicial misconduct by disregarding a defendant’s right to a formal probation violation hearing. The commission agreed with Ross that he acted properly in evicting the deputy public defender representing the defendant after she loudly and abrasively challenged him on the issue, but said he was wrong to have gone ahead and revoked the defendant’s probation without a formal hearing and without his counsel present.
•Did not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct by speaking on a radio program about a statewide ballot proposition during courtroom hours, or by participating in a community outreach program different from the one for which he had obtained an approved leave without notifying the court of the change.
The commission agreed with Ross that these constituted appropriate judicial-community outreach activities.
•Committed prejudicial misconduct by revealing on a public television program information he had learned while presiding over a confidential juvenile matter.
The commission rejected Ross’ argument that the rule against judicial comment on pending cases is unconstitutional. It noted that the California Supreme Court has ruled otherwise, rejected the contention that a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding free speech rights of judicial candidates abrogated the California high court’s holding, said that it was barred by the state Constitution from questioning the constitutionality of a rule promulgated by the Supreme Court, and opined that the rule serves a compelling public interest.
•Did not commit misconduct by commenting on the KCET public television program “Life and Times Tonight” about the case of two Inglewood police officers charged with abusing a suspect.
The commission agreed with Ross that objective comment on the substantive law and court procedures affecting a case in which the judge is not personally involved falls under an exception to the code that allows a judge to comment on pending cases if the remarks are limited to “explaining for public information the procedures of the court.”
•Committed prejudicial misconduct by commenting during another “Life and Times” appearance about the high-profile case of a Northern California sex offender seeking to become the first person released from commitment under the Sexually Violent Predator Act.
Unlike the police officers’ case, the commission found, Ross’ comments on Patrick Ghilotti went beyond mere explanation of legal procedure. “The judge’s comments about the Ghilotti family wealth, the defendant’s charisma, the fact that people were watching, and the reckless suggestion that politics may drive the outcome of the case were both unseemly and potentially prejudicial to the litigants,” the commission found.
The commission rejected the argument that Ross’ comments fell under an exception that allows a judge to make limited comments on pending cases in the context of “legal education programs and materials.” That language refers to publications and programs for the judiciary or the bar, not to comments aimed at the general public, the CJP said.
In concluding that removal from the bench is the appropriate discipline, the commission cited the number of acts of misconduct, the fact that Ross had received prior discipline—a 2001 advisory, or “stinger,” letter for “demeaning and humiliating” defendants in his courtroom by having them explain their actions to a visiting elementary school class—Ross’ unwillingness to fully acknowledge his misconduct and insistence on offering claims that he was motivated by good intentions rather than “just admitting his wrongdoing,” and his lack of candor in addressing many of the charges.
Ross was elected to the Inglewood Municipal Court in 1998, unseating Judge Lawrence Mason, an appointee of then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Ross, one of the youngest judges in the state at age 34 when he took office, was elevated to the Superior Court by unification in 2000.
He earned his law degree from Southwestern, serving there as president of the Black Law Students Association. He ran unsuccessfully for the Los Angeles City Council in 1995 and once hosted his own radio talk show.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company