Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Disciplinary Hearing Set for Willful Misconduct Charges Against Monterey Judge, Local Justice to Head Panel
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An Aug. 21 disciplinary hearing for a Monterey Superior Court judge accused of intemperate conduct has been set, with Court of Appeal Justice Laurence Rubin of this district’s Div. Eight being name to preside over the panel of special masters who will hear the evidence.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy and Tuolumne Superior Court Judge Eleanor Provost will round out the hearing panel, which will sit at the Sixth District Court of Appeal building in San Jose.
The Commission on Judicial Performance filed formal charges of willful misconduct in office, conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and improper action on April 27. The commission could censure Velasquez or remove him from office if the allegations are proven.
The 47-year-old jurist is specifically accused of sentencing defendants to jail for probation violations with which they were not charged; increasing sentences in response to defendants’ questions or comments; improperly basing sentences on defendants’ answers to his questions about how it felt to commit the crime; pressuring defendants into pleading guilty; issuing bench warrants for defendants whose attorneys arrived late to court; making improper comments from the bench, including joking remarks about jail time; and allowing his young children to be in the bench area and in chambers during case discussions.
Velasquez has denied wrongdoing.
In his formal response to the charges, the judge—who is represented by San Francisco attorney James A. Murphy—said that all of the sentences which he imposed were “within the sentencing guidelines available” to him. The defendants named in the charges had generally violated specific probation conditions, and in each instance the judge said he “considered the motions, the basis for reasons for non-compliance, and the oral argument” before deciding what sentence to impose.
The judge explained that he does not pressure misdemeanor defendants, who “are frequently unsophisticated, have no experience in the criminal justice system, and are confused” to plead guilty, but that he does—in accordance with what he said was longstanding practice in the county—offer them an opportunity for informal diversion, in which charges are dismissed and no formal plea is taken if the conditions set by the court are complied with.
He added that he advises all defendants at the beginning of every calendar of all of their options, but acknowledged that he may have been “in error” in failing to advise some particular defendants named by the commission that they would be returned to the criminal justice system if they failed to comply with the specified conditions.
As for issuing bench warrants for defendants whose lawyers do not appear, the judge noted that he typically has 100 cases on calendar and cannot readily determine whether a defendant is represented by counsel. Even when lawyers have appeared, he explained, they are often discharged by their clients, yet notice is not in the file by the court date.
The judge acknowledged that his children are often present in court, but said they “have never interfered with nor interrupted any of the proceedings.”
Velasquez, 47, has been a judge since 1995. He accepted censure by the commission in 1997 for offenses that included publicly accusing his presiding judge of racial bias based on how cases were assigned; creating an atmosphere of prejudice by announcing a standard set of sentences to be imposed in drunk driving cases, implying that mitigating circumstances would not be considered, and publicly accusing his fellow judges of issuing “slap on the wrist” sentences in such cases; hanging a crucifix on the wall behind his bench; and allowing his name and title to be used in connection with an ad supporting abortion rights.
Velasquez was elected to the old Monterey County Municipal Court in a 1995 special election ordered as part of a settlement of a Voting Rights Act suit. The plaintiffs in that case alleged that the county had discriminated against Hispanic voters by gradually consolidating a multiplicity of municipal and justice courts into a countywide court of limited jurisdiction.
As a result of the settlement, a predominantly Hispanic single-judge election district was created, and Velasquez won the seat by defeating Judge Lydia Villareal, who had been appointed to the court five months earlier. Velasquez became a Superior Court judge through unification in December 2000.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company