Friday, September 7, 2007
Judge Admonished for Uncivil Actions Towards Deputies
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance on Tuesday took disciplinary action for a sixth time against a Kern Superior Court judge, publicly admonishing the judge for verbal outbursts against deputies of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department.
Over objections raised by the judge and his attorney in an appearance before the commission, members determined unanimously that Judge Clarence Westra Jr. engaged in improper conduct and violated canon 3B(4) of the Code of Judicial Ethics by failing to act in a dignified, patient and courteous manner toward those with whom he dealt in an official capacity.
Citing incidents occurring last year and in 2001, the commission said the judge acted improperly during an April 13, 2006 meeting with Kern County Sheriff’s Department Division Commander Shelly Castaneda to discuss the actions of another deputy assigned to the judge’s courtroom as a bailiff.
According to the commission, Westra was presiding over a criminal trial on April 11, 2006 when jury deliberations began and the bailiff was sworn with responsibility to take charge of the jury. The bailiff had previously informed the judge that he was scheduled to attend mandatory quarterly firearms training the following day, and the next afternoon the bailiff left to attend the training.
Although a replacement bailiff was available, the judge was displeased that the sworn bailiff left and insisted that the bailiff return that afternoon, the commission recited. The bailiff did so without completing his training, and Westra left a voicemail message for Castaneda stating that he wished to discuss the matter with her.
The following morning, Castaneda and Senior Deputy Larry Lopez went to the judge’s chambers to discuss the matter in person. Castaneda had recently been assigned as commander of court services, so she had not previously met Westra.
Despite his voicemail the previous afternoon, the judge’s first statement to Castaneda was, “I don’t know how you fit into this,” the commission recalled. When Castaneda began explaining that firearms training is required for all deputies, Westra responded that the bailiff’s departure was “unacceptable” and that he “would not tolerate it,” indicating that the sheriff’s department did not have the authority to remove a deputy from his courtroom once that deputy had been sworn to take charge of a jury.
Seeking clarification, Castaneda asked the judge if he had a written protocol in place regarding his courtroom procedures, and inquired whether any procedures existed requiring the same bailiff to remain in place. Westra responded, “You are not going to tell me how to run my courtroom.”
After Castaneda inquired again about a written protocol, the judge repeated that she was not going to run his courtroom and directed her to leave his chambers. When Castaneda did not do so immediately, Westra pointed at the door to his chambers and yelled, “Get out!” more than once.
The commission cited a second incident occurring in July, 2001 in which the judge made improper comments to a deputy regarding other deputies. According to the commission, Westra’s courtroom procedures required that deputies guarding an in-custody criminal defendant during a jury trial were not to leave the courtroom while the defendant testified.
A guard who was unfamiliar with this procedure left the courtroom during the defendant’s testimony and Westra later remarked to Deputy Jackie Mitchell that, “The Keystone Cops could have handled it better.”
The commission noted in its decision that the judge has been the subject of extensive prior discipline proceedings, many of which relate to improper treatment of others in his official capacity. While serving as a presiding judge in 1988, he received a first advisory letter citing his failure to appropriately supervise a court commissioner who had delayed ruling on a dissolution matter, and citing his failure to respond to letters from the complainant inquiring about the delay. His position as presiding judge subsequently ceased in 1989.
A second advisory letter in 1990 resulted from denigrating remarks made about a deputy district attorney who was not present in court due to a work related training session out of town. Although the attorney had sent another deputy district attorney in his place, Westra declared that the absent attorney practiced law “like a manure spreader,” and that it was “downright amazing” that the district attorney’s office kept him on the payroll. He made the remarks in open court, on the record, and in front of other deputy district attorneys, defense counsel, at least one defendant and others.
In 1992, the judge received a third advisory letter for making disparaging remarks about an absent attorney who was unable to appear due to another trial who had sent another attorney on his behalf. Westra stated, “As far as I’m concerned, his license to practice law is laying on pretty cheap paper… You might tell him you’re being disadvantaged by his second rate tactics.” Again, he made these comments in open court and on the record.
The fourth advisory letter in 2001 resulted from what the commission found to be abuse of his authority as presiding judge after he re-attained the position in 1998. In 2001, the Kern County Municipal and Superior Courts operated under a coordination plan by which municipal court judges were entitled to receive the salary of superior court judges for handling superior court assignments.
The commission found that Westra excluded two municipal court judges from certification for pay parity because he disagreed with their handling of certain cases. He further gave the judges no notice or an opportunity to explain. This action ran contrary to the advisements from the Administrative Office of the Courts that all municipal judges participating in coordination plans were entitled to pay parity, the CJP found.
A fifth advisory letter in 2003 again resulted from what the commission also found to be abuse of authority – this time after workers involved in a courthouse renovation project generated too much noise. Although the court staffer responsible for coordinating the renovation work was brought before the judge to address his concerns about the noise, Westra instead directed a bailiff to bring the construction workers before him.
He ordered the workers to cease using power equipment at certain times and required each worker to state his name on the record, in open court, in the presence of litigants and others. The commission noted with concern in its 2003 advisory letter that it was the commission’s fifth such letter.
Westra was appointed to his position in 1983 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian. He was elected to the post in 1984, and reelected in 1990, 1996 and 2002.
A court spokesperson said yesterday that the judge was on vacation, and that he had no comment with respect to the commission’s decision.
Commission chair and Orange Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Horn voted for the admonishment along with Court of Appeal Justice Judith D. McConnell, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein, attorneys Marshall B. Grossman and Peter Flores Jr., and public members Patricia Miller, Barbara Schraeger, Lawrence Simi and Maya Dillard Smith.
Public member Samuel A. Hardage, who was appointed to the commission two weeks ago, did not participate. There is currently one public member vacancy on the commission.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company