Thursday, April 26, 2007
CJP Orders Removal of Monterey County Jurist From Bench
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday ordered the removal of Monterey Superior Court Judge Jose A. Velasquez, effectively ending his 11-year judicial career unless the state Supreme Court intervenes.
The commission, by a vote of 9-0, found Velasquez guilty of 21 instances of willful misconduct—the most serious level of misconduct under commission rules—and 25 instances of less-serious prejudicial misconduct.
This was “a plethora of misconduct by any standard,” the commission said in a decision signed by its chairperson, Orange Superior Court Judge Frederick Horn.
The CJP found that Velasquez, 48, sentenced defendants to jail for probation violations without formal hearings or valid waivers, increased sentences to punish defendants for asking legitimate questions or making appropriate comments; improperly based sentences on defendants’ answers to his questions about how it felt to commit the crime; issued bench warrants for defendants whose attorneys arrived late to court, even though the defendants were not required to appear; and made improper comments in court, including joking remarks about jail time.
Velasquez, a judge since 1995, 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.
He also received an advisory letter from the CJP last year, warning him to discontinue his practice of addressing some defendants directly in Spanish. The commission said this was a violation of the statutory requirement that all proceedings be conducted in English.
The commission largely adopted the findings of a panel of special masters that included Court of Appeal Justice of this district’s Div. Eight and two superior court judges from Northern California. In some instances, the commission went further than the masters, finding bad faith on the part of Velasquez in instances where the factfinding panel had not.
The commission cited eight cases in which misdemeanor defendants were found to be in violation of probation and sentenced to jail, even though the noticed proceeding before the court was not a probation violation hearing.
In each of the cases, the commission said, the defendant was before the judge without counsel, asking to postpone a surrender date, modify a condition of probation, or obtain an extension of time to attend required meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, or for review of compliance with probation conditions. In each instance, however, the judge found that the defendant was in willful violation of probation and ordered a jail sentence, the commission found.
In several cases, the commission found, Velasquez increased or threatened to penalize defendants for asking questions or making comments.
More Time Threatened
In one case, for example, when the judge told a misdemeanor defendant that she would receive 10 days in jail, the defendant replied that she accepted probation on those terms but asked “is there a way you can make the time less?” to which Velasquez responded “I can make it more.”
In another instance, a defendant was told that he could go to jail or to 30 AA meetings as part of a diversion program, but was not told he could plead not guilty.
When he offered to attend the AA meetings but asked if the number could be reduced in light of his work schedule, the judge threatened to take away his driver’s license. The commission found that Velasquez acted in bad faith because he knew that he had no authority to take a license or impose jail time at the pretrial stage of proceedings.
The commissioners rejected the judge’s contention that the comments were proper, since such penalties could ultimately be imposed. The defendants, who appeared without counsel, could not have understood that, the commission said, adding that the judge’s insistence that he acted properly in many of the cases showed that he was unlikely to reform his behavior.
Similarly, the commission said, the judge’s insistence that it was not improper for him to make an ex parte phone call to a work program to determine whether a defendant had completed his required hours of service. The judge’s explanation—that he was entitled to call the program in order “to find the truth”—“reflects a serious lack of understanding of basic due process principles,” the CJP explained.
The commission also cited a case in which the judge found a defendant to have violated his probation by failing to install an ignition interlock device and to attend AA meetings, and told him he was going to be taken into custody for 20 days. When the defendant tried to offer information in his defense, the commission said, Velasquez became embroiled in a colloquy, in the course of which he threatened to increase the sentence to 60 days before imposing the 20 days sentence, in addition to a requirement that the defendant attend 30 additional meetings.
The judge also made improper remarks and cut off and threatened defendants in a number of other cases, the commission said. In one case, for example, the judge told a defendant charged with not paying child support that he was facing a year in jail if he did not pay $5,000 before his next court date, and the defendant asked if he could “say something,” Velasquez asked “Before you go to jail for the full year or after?”
The commission excoriated Velasquez for having frequently made joking remarks about the possibility of jailing not only defendants, but in one case a man who merely came to court to inquire about a case involving a friend. The comments “under the circumstances were undignified, out of place, and prejudicial to public esteem for the judiciary,” the panel said.
The CJP acknowledged testimony from a handful of witnesses that Velasquez was a good judge and a respected member of the community. But while those efforts were “laudable,” the commission said, they were “overwhelmed by the breadth and severity of the judge’s past and present misconduct.”
San Francisco attorney James A. Murphy, who represents Velasquez, was not available yesterday for comment. 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.
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 as one one of the first Hispanics ever to sit on a Monterey County court. Velasquez became a Superior Court judge through unification in December 2000.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company