Wednesday, October 3, 2007
CJP Calls Riverside Judge Spitzer Dishonest, Orders His Ouster
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday ordered the removal of Riverside Superior Court Judge Robert G. Spitzer, saying he had engaged in numerous instances of misconduct.
Spitzer, a judge since 1990, failed to decide cases within the time required by law, became personally embroiled in cases, failed to cooperate with the commission’s preliminary investigation, and was dishonest with the commission and the special masters who heard evidence in the case, the CJP said in a unanimous decision.
“The lack of candor we have observed in these proceedings is fundamentally at odds with the role of a judge who is sworn to uphold the law,” the CJP said.
Largely agreeing with the three-judge panel that heard evidence in the case, the commission said that Spitzer failed to ensure that orders were filed on time, often failed to decide cases within 90 days, filed false salary affidavits, failed to issue orders, engaged in ex parte communication, and gave the appearance of and demonstrated bias.
The commission was especially critical of the judge’s “egregious course of conduct” in the case of a defendant charged with murder, child endangerment, driving under the influence of alcohol and other offenses stemming from an automobile accident which resulted in the death of a child.
After jurors deadlocked on the murder charge while convicting the accused on other charges, Spitzer said in open court that he thought the case should be resolved with a plea of guilty to vehicular manslaughter and suggested he would dismiss the murder charge if a second jury could not reach a verdict.
In a continuing effort to persuade the district attorney’s office to change its posture, the CJP found, Spitzer contacted the victim’s mother, Kathleen Kavanaugh, without the parties’ knowledge, asked her into chambers, and suggested she use her influence to convince the district attorney to drop the murder charge.
Then-District Attorney Grover Trask successfully moved to disqualify Spitzer from presiding over a retrial—the defendant was convicted of second degree murder before another judge—and filed blanket challenges under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.6 against him for a time.
Spitzer told the masters that he only spoke to Kavanaugh to reiterate what he had said in open court, and that she seemed satisfied with the idea of avoiding a retrial by having the defendant plead guilty to the lesser charge and serve what the judge considered a reasonably long prison term without the possibility of a life sentence. But Kavanaugh testified that she felt intimidated, the judge telling her in effect that the court was “my house,” and that he could do things his way.
Both the masters and the commission found Kavanaugh more credible than the judge.
Spitzer, the CJP said, violated ethics rules by communicating with Kavanaugh ex parte and by attempting to enlist her aid in order to resolve his disagreement with the prosecutors. He also sought to interfere with the proper function of the district attorney’s office, whose prior plea offers in the case had been rejected by the defendant, the commission said.
“Attempting to convince a mother whose child was killed by a drunk driver that her child’s death was unintentional by reference to Penal Codes, legal terminology, and sentence calculations reflects an alarming lack of sensitivity in addition to being extraordinarily inappropriate and unjudicial,” the CJP commented.
The commission also criticized Spitzer for failing to take measures to correct the “chronic state of disorganization” that resulted in long delays in signing orders and in orders going unprocessed for months after being signed.
The judge, the CJP said, persistently violated the rights of litigants to have their cases heard in a timely manner, and filed dozens of false affidavits stating he had no cases under submission for more than 90 days, state law requiring such affidavits as a prerequisite to a judge being paid.
The misconduct was compounded, the commission said, because Spitzer refused offers by his presiding judge to assist him by allowing him to catch up on his paperwork instead of trying cases.
The commission also disclosed that in 2003, it had served Spitzer with notice of its intent to publicly admonish him for failing to decide cases on time, but closed the matter without discipline after the judge appeared before the CJP and assured it that he no longer had any 90-day cases under submission and had taken steps to ensure that matters would not lie dormant in the future.
Subsequent investigation proved that the judge’s assurances were false, the commission said.
The order of removal becomes final in 30 days, and the judge will then have 60 days in which to petition the state high court for review. He is constitutionally barred from sitting as a judge in the interim.
Spitzer becomes the eighth judge whose ouster has been ordered by the commission since 2001. Before that time, the commission could only recommend removal to the Supreme Court.
Spitzer’s attorneys, Reginald A. Vitek of Seltzer Caplan, McMahon & Vitek and Heather Rosing of Klinedinst, P.C., both in San Diego, were unavailable yesterday for comment.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company