Thursday, July 26, 2007
Monterey Jurist Velasquez Seeks Supreme Court Review of Ouster
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Monterey Superior Court Judge Jose A. Velasquez yesterday asked the California Supreme Court to review the jurist’s ouster by the Commission on Judicial Performance.
Velasquez, a judge for 11 years, has been barred from sitting on the bench since the CJP ordered him removed April 25. But the CJP order cannot become final until the state high court either denies review or affirms on the merits.
In his petition to the Supreme Court, Velasquez—who is now represented by San Diego attorney James Friedhofer of Hatch and Parent—claims that he was removed for “mere legal error,” rather than for misconduct, in violation of the court’s precedents.
“We...contend that the undisputed evidence showed that Judge Velasquez was not aware of his legal errors until after they were called to his attention by the CJP’s investigation and proceedings,” Friedhofer wrote, and that the judge thus did not act in bad faith.
Velasquez also challenges the ruling on constitutional grounds, noting that at the time of his removal, the commission—as a result of two public member vacancies—had a majority of judge and lawyer members. This is contrary to the intent of Proposition 190, a 1994 constitutional amendment restructuring the commission to include a majority of public members, the judge asserted.
He also noted that several members were holding over, under a provision that allows a member whose term has expired to remain on the CJP until replaced, including one member who had served the maximum two four-year terms allowed.
The amendment specifies no time limit for replacing a holdover member. But the judge and his lawyer argue that allowing members to hold over indefinitely violates the voters’ intent that a change in commission membership take place every two years, as reflected by the provision for staggered, four-year terms.
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.
In arguing for Supreme Court review, the judge’s counsel urged the court to consider the unique circumstances of the judge’s upbringing and election to the bench.
Velasquez, the petition explained, is the son of migrant workers who settled in a poor, crime-ridden area of Salinas, where his father and brother still live. He pursued higher education, including law school, because of a promise he made to his mother, who died when he was 12.
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 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