Friday, August 4, 2006
Judge Criticizes Use of Court’s E-Mail System for Fundraiser Invite
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has criticized two of his colleagues for using the court’s e-mail system to promote a fundraiser for a candidate seeking an open Los Angeles Superior Court seat.
Judge Abraham Khan late Tuesday sent an e-mail to Judges Gilbert Lopez and Mildred Escobedo, with copies to a number of other judicial officers, in apparent response to e-mails sent out by Lopez and Escobedo earlier in the day.
Copies of the e-mails were obtained by the MetNews.
In the first e-mail, Lopez asked Escobedo to “circulate...to the Latino Judges on your list” an invitation to a Sept. 23 fundraiser at Lopez’s home for Deputy City Attorney Deborah Sanchez, who faces Deputy Attorney General Bob Henry in a November runoff election for the seat from which Judge Charles Rubin retired.
Escobedo then forwarded Lopez’s e-mail to over 40 judges and subordinate judicial officers, most of whom have Spanish surnames, with instructions that “any questions please call Judge Gilbert Lopez.”
That drew the following response from Khan, whose friendship with Henry goes back to high school student government days:
“Dear Judges Lopez, Escobedo, and other Interested Bench Officers:
“No County, State, or other governmental resources can be used for political or campaign purposes. Our own court generally sends out cautionary reminders to Judges and their staff reminding them of this, and there is an old Attorney General Opinion on this very topic (it’s contained in the C.J.A. Judicial Elections Handbook). You simply can’t send e-mails out to other Bench Officers soliciting them to attend a fund raiser using any governmental property. I would urge you to refer to the Judicial Elections Handbook, and further urge you not to communicate to Bench Officers regarding event such as this through the Court e-mail system. I hope I didn’t shock or offend any of you, but I’m trying to guide you out of harm’s way.”
Phone calls to the courtrooms of Lopez, Escobedo and Khan were not returned. Sanchez could not be reached for comment, and Henry said he was unaware of the controversy and had no interest in talking about it because he does not consider it an issue in the campaign.
Escobedo was embroiled in a similar controversy two years ago, when she was a court referee and was running for an open seat herself. On that occasion, she sent an e-mail from a personal account to several judicial officers, inviting them to a fundraiser for her campaign.
After some recipients, who received the communication at their court e-mail addresses, questioned its appropriateness, Escobedo sent out a second e-mail, apologizing for the earlier solicitation.
The second communication said that the campaign had taken “every measure to insure that we are in complete compliance with the Hatch Act”—a statute whose relevance was unclear since it is a federal law governing political activity by federal employees.
Assistant Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger, who said he had been unaware of Tuesday’s communications, said there was little the court could do to prevent judges from using the e-mail system for political purposes.
“The general rule of thumb is that judges should avoid use of court resources for judicial campaigns,” he explained. “But....people sometimes use e-mails without thinking of the consequences. That’s a question that someone has to look at.”
The court, he explained, has a policy “that court e-mail should not be used for non-court business.” But while the court could discipline an employee for violation of that policy, “the judges are independent constitutional officers” whose conduct falls under the “ultimate jurisdiction” of the Commission on Judicial Performance, Czuleger said.
The Code of Judicial Ethics, which the commission enforces, says in Canon 5 that judges should “refrain from inappropriate political activity,” but does not address the specific issue of use of court e-mail.
In 2003, however, the commission censured retired Fresno Superior Court Judge Vincent McGraw for misconduct which included using the court’s mail system to solicit backing for his re-election campaign, seeking support from courthouse workers during business hours, using a photograph of himself with court employees without obtaining the employees’ consent, and leaving the courthouse to campaign without clearing his calendar.
Those actions, the commission said, violated Canon 5, as well as other canons with prohibit lending the prestige of judicial office to advance a judge’s personal interests.
In addition, Government Code Sec. 8314 makes it “unlawful for any elected state or local officer, including any state or local appointee, employee, or consultant, to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity, or personal or other purposes which are not authorized by law.”
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company