Friday, February 10, 2006
CJP Admonishes Judge Ruffo Espinosa, Says Jurist Violated Rights of Defendant and His Lawyer
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday publicly admonished Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ruffo Espinosa Jr., saying his treatment of a deputy public defender whom he held in contempt of court was uncalled for and that the rights of the defendant were violated as well.
Espinosa, who is 68 years old and has been a judge since 1995, committed “serious misconduct” when he ordered Deputy Public Defender Michael Pentz taken into immediate custody, even though the judge was aware that state law imposes an automatic three-day stay when a lawyer is held in contempt, the commission found in a unanimous ruling.
The judge also acted improperly by not allowing Pentz “full right to be heard according to law” before sentencing his client to prison, the commission said, and violated ethical canons requiring that a judge follow the law, promote the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system, avoid bias and prejudice, and be patient, dignified, and courteous.
The heretofore-secret proceedings against the judge grew out of the 2004 sentencing of Pentz’s client, Charles Netterville, whom the judge had previously referred to the Department of Corrections for a diagnostic study.
The sentencing included the following comments, according to transcript excerpts included in the commission decision:
“MR. PENTZ: I would just ask the Court for leave to speak without interruption. The Court seems to have made up its mind, but I haven’t had a chance --
THE COURT: Frankly, I have made up my mind.
MR. PENTZ: I got that from the last hearing when I was unable to speak, but now I really want to address the Court and on the record.
THE COURT: I want it clear that you’re addressing the Court for the benefit of the record.
MR. PENTZ: Well, actually, I’m exercising my client’s right to have him represented in court.
THE COURT: It’s not going to sway me to give him any less because I have considered this. I already know what you’re going to say[,] frankly. [¶] You’re going to talk about his mental illness, what a good guy he is, all the letters of recommendation, and so on and so forth, and I’ve taken all that into account. [¶] I’ve also taken into account the psychiatric reports, and I’ve looked at his history and his behavior while he has been on probation to me [sic], and yes, I do have a calendar. But if you want to make a record, I’ll sit back, sway on my chair, and then you can put five minutes worth. All right? [¶] Go ahead.”
Pentz then proceeded to say he might not need five minutes, and urged the judge to place the defendant in a treatment program. Less than a minute into his statement, the commission said, the judge interrupted and began a discussion of sentencing credits.
When Pentz then tried to finish his comments about the benefits of treatment rather than prison, the judge told him to “be quiet,” and said that if he heard “one more peep out of” the lawyer, he would hold him in contempt.
When Pentz then objected to the judge’s “cavalier way,” Espinosa said he was going to fine him $50. When Pentz objected, the following ensued:
“THE COURT: Do you want to go for a hundred?
MR. PENTZ: If the Court can set it for $250, I want [a] hearing on it, and I want to order a transcript.
THE COURT: That will be $250. You are sanctioned. That will be payable -- I’ll give you a chance to appeal this.
MR. PENTZ: Judge, I’m requesting a hearing.
THE COURT: This is a direct --
MR. PENTZ: I’m requesting a hearing. I hope the Court understands my request.
THE COURT: Your request for a hearing is denied. You’ve already had a hearing. How many hearings do you want?
MR. PENTZ: A hearing on an order to show cause is a fundamental law, Your Honor. I’m asking for that. I’ll bring you the Penal Code -- the civil code section if you wish.
THE COURT: This is a direct contempt of court, and you are ordered to pay the sum of -- what did we say? -- $250?
MR. PENTZ: I think that was the last sum, yes.
THE COURT: Payable by -- when can you pay that? — or five days in the county jail. What do you want?
MR. PENTZ: Judge, it’s --
THE COURT: All right. Do you want five days in the county jail?
MR. PENTZ: I’m ready to surrender.
THE COURT: Take him in. That’s five days in the county jail, Counsel.”
Pentz, the CJP explained, was then taken to a holding cell and eventually brought back before the judge, with Chief Deputy Public Defender Greg Fisher present. The judge said he was going to sent Pentz to jail for five days because he “kept on arguing” after the judge made a ruling, that he was “deeply insulted” by the lawyer’s behavior, and that he would grant a stay but expected Pentz to “bring [his] toothbrush” next time he appeared.
In a written contempt order, the judge said he was insulted by the lawyer’s use of the word “cavalier” and his “mocking the court,” and that Pentz was sarcastic and had interfered with the orderly processes of the court.
The contempt citation was eventually thrown out in a habeas corpus proceeding before a visiting judge from Orange County. Netterville’s three-year prison term was overturned by the Court of Appeal, which sent the case back for resentencing before another judge, saying the defendant had been deprived of his right to present arguments in mitigation of sentence and that the judge’s mistreatment of defense counsel suggested he could not preside impartially over a new sentencing hearing.
In response to the commission’s notice of intent to impose a public admonishment, Espinosa waived his right to formal proceedings, which would have been open to the public, and appeared before the commission in secret to oppose the discipline, which the commission imposed by a vote of 11-0.
Telephone calls to Espinoza; his attorney, Edward George; and Pentz were not returned.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company