Wednesday, April 9, 2008
CJP Admonishes Orange County Judge for Belittling Parties
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance publicly admonished Orange Superior Court Judge James M. Brooks for the second time in two years on Friday for belittling litigants and their counsel in his courtroom.
The CJP said comments made by the jurist during the 2005 jury trial in the case of Haluck v. Ricoh Electronics “may have been humorous to the judge and defense counsel,” but violated ethics rules requiring that judges act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary; appear patient, dignified and courteous; and uphold order and decorum in proceedings.
Brooks, 70, stipulated to the issuance of the admonishment, and agreed to retire from the bench in order to forego formal proceedings and the possible imposition of higher discipline. He is scheduled to preside for the last time on April 30.
During the proceedings, Brooks overruled one of plaintiffs’ objections by holding up a hand-lettered sign he had prepared, stating “overruled.” Defense counsel later presented Brooks with another “overruled” sign, and when plaintiffs’ counsel objected, Brooks responded: “It’s lightening things up.”
Also during the proceedings, one plaintiff testified that his emotional distress caused him to feel like he was in a white room without windows or doors and boundaries. On cross-examination, defense counsel asked if the plaintiff was familiar with “The Twilight Zone,” and proceeded to recite the show’s introduction and sing its theme song.
Defense counsel asked the plaintiff if the “white room theory” was from the show, and after the plaintiff responded in the negative, defense counsel began singing the theme song again.
When plaintiff’s counsel objected that defense counsel was mocking the witness and the proceedings, Brooks replied:
“For the record, he hit a few notes of The Twilight Zone theme song which I don’t see as mocking. He was off color.”
In another instance, plaintiff’s counsel asked her client if he felt he was being discriminated against based upon his race because of comments by a specific individual. Defense counsel objected to the question as leading, and Brooks sustained the objection.
When plaintiffs’ counsel rephrased the question, and the plaintiff answered, “due to the comment by [the individual defendant],” defense counsel said, “[w]hat a surprise,” and Brooks remarked, “[a]ren’t they clever.”
The jury returned a verdict for the defense, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal later overturned it on appeal in Haluck v. Ricoh Electronics, Inc. (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 994, concluding that Brooks’ conduct was sufficiently egregious and pervasive that a reasonable person could doubt whether the trial was fair and impartial, and remanded the case with directions that it be assigned to a different judge.
Criticizing Brooks for permitting defense counsel to “deride and make snide remarks at will” at the plaintiffs’ expense, as well as for the jurist’s own comments and actions which “belittle[d] the seriousness of the proceedings,” the CJP concluded that Brooks’ behavior was prejudicial to the administration of justice and constituted misconduct.
In determining that a public admonishment was appropriate, the CJP noted that Brooks had been previously disciplined for similar conduct.
In 1996 he received an advisory letter addressing comments by him which the CJP described as reflecting ethnic bias, including referring to Hispanic defendants as “Pedro,” issuing a bench warrant for an Asian defendant for “ten thousand dollars or twenty thousand yen,” and telling an undocumented immigrant of Hispanic origin that he had “more names than the Tijuana telephone book.”
In 1999, Brooks received another “stinger” letter for remarks to a defendant about how Brooks would have handled an assault on a member of his own family. The CJP quoted the judge as saying he would “go down and punch [the defendant’s] lights out” and that instead of calling the police, “it would be, ‘touch them, you die.’”
In 2003, he received a private admonishment for conduct that included referring to the parties in a case as “Nazis,” and comments conveying his stereotypes of undocumented aliens.
In 2006, he received a public admonishment after the commission found in part that Brooks had told a litigant who claimed he failed to appear for his disposition due to a heart condition: “I wonder what’s going to happen when we put you in jail…. Your little ticker might stop, you think?”
Laguna Hills attorney Michelle Reinglass, who represented the plaintiffs in the Haluck matter, agreed that Brooks’ handling of the case was injudicious.
“It’s not really my place to comment, [but] my client was mocked…. I was mocked…. It was far, far beyond what would be called normal humor,” she told the MetNews.
“It felt like on a daily basis there was a running gag in which we weren’t included. We were the gag. We’re grateful we have the opportunity to retry the case in a fair courtroom and have a trial on the merits instead of Comedy Central.”
Santa Ana attorney Daniel J. Callahan, who served as defense counsel in that case, said: “I believe the appellate court was wrong…. It selectively picked facts that could be made to lead to their conclusion.”
He added that the United States Supreme Court has accepted briefs from the parties in the case and will issue its decision regarding certiorari next week.
“I think it’s a shame [he resigned]. I think he’s a good judge…and he was fair.”
However, he theorized that Brooks’ resignation was due in larger part to the death of his daughter, former San Bernardino Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Brooks in a car accident almost three years ago.
Callahan represented Brooks and his wife in the wrongful death action, which recently concluded, and said Brooks was “just devastated” by his daughter’s death. Between the stress caused by the CJP proceedings and the lawsuit, Callahan opined Brooks had “reached a turning point in his life,” which led him to resign.
Brooks’ attorney, Edward P. George Jr. of Long Beach, could not be reached for comment.
Brooks was elected to the Central Orange County Municipal Court in 1986 and took the bench on Jan. 5, 1987. He served as assistant presiding judge of court in 1991, and as presiding judge in 1992.
Following unification, he was elevated to the Orange Superior Court in 1998.
He was named “Judge of the Year” in 1989 by the Orange County Constitutional Rights Foundation, and again in 1993 by the Orange County Narcotics Officers Association.
Brooks received his bachelor’s degree from California State University, Long Beach, and his law degree from the Southwestern University School of Law. He also served as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney from 1972-73, and as an Orange County deputy district attorney from 1973-87.
In a letter informing Presiding Judge Nancy Wieben Stock of his retirement, read to the MetNews by a court spokesperson, Brooks wrote:
“I leave with a lifetime of wonderful memories I shall cherish as a reminder of having served in the company of the finest most honest and hardworking judges in the world…. I shall miss them and the great clerks and bailiffs and other court personnel who made working in the courts here for 21 years so enjoyable.”
Commission members Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Judith D. McConnell of the Fourth District, Div. One, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein, and public members Peter E. Flores, Barbara Schraeger, Lawrence Simi, Maya Dillard Smith, Sandra Talcott, and Nathaniel Trives voted for a public admonishment.
Los Angeles attorney Marshall B. Grossman and public member Samuel A. Hardage did not participate. CJA Chairperson Frederick P. Horn, a colleague of the admonished judge on the Orange Superior Court, was recused.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company