Thursday, April 2, 2009
CJP Reports Disposing of Almost 900 Cases Last Year
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance disposed of nearly 900 complaints against California judges last year, it said in its annual report released yesterday.
The commission said it disposed of a total of 892 complaints, of which 805 were closed after initial review and 87 referred to commission staff for further inquiry or preliminary investigation.
Of those 87 cases, 34 resulted in discipline, five were closed following the judge’s resignation or retirement, and 48 were closed without discipline. Of the 34 cases in which discipline was imposed, two resulted in removal, seven in public admonishment, seven in private admonishment, and 18 in the issuance of advisory or “stinger” letters.
The removal cases were those of Orange Superior Court Judge Kelly MacEachern and Riverside Superior Court Judge Robert Spitzer.
MacEachern was ordered removed last June for seeking reimbursement for travel to a seminar she was not authorized to, and did not, attend and for dishonesty in connection with the commission’s investigation and disciplinary hearing.
Spitzer, who was ordered from the bench by the CJP in 2007 but is included in the report for 2008 because he unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court for review, was found to have failed to complete his work on time, falsely declared that he had, and become personally embroiled in two cases.
Of the 34 cases resulting in discipline, 16 involved improper demeanor or decorum or inappropriate humor, nine the on-bench abuse of authority, eight bias or the appearance of bias for or against particular individuals not based on race or other group identification, and four retaliation against attorneys who had disqualified judges or disclosed grounds for disqualification.
In addition, three judges were failing to protect litigants’ rights, three for misconduct off the bench, two for abuse of the contempt or sanctions powers, two for improper ex parte communications, and two for administrative malfeasance.
Other grounds for which discipline was imposed included misuse of court resources, substance abuse, group bias or the appearance thereof, sexual harassment, and improper political activities.
As part of the report, the commission each year summarizes the conduct for which judges received private discipline, with no identification of the court involved.
Conduct for which private admonishments were imposed included using demeaning language toward a litigant and a staff member, appearing in court while intoxicated—the judge involved retired and agreed not to sit on assignment, threatening to slap a deputy sheriff and a lawyer, and ordering a defendant into custody for not paying restitution without determining whether the defendant had the ability to pay and without allowing the defendant to speak.
Private admonishments were also imposed for having a witness taken into custody without following proper contempt procedures, instructing jurors without counsel present and speaking to jurors without counsel or the defendant present, and failing to disclose close relationships with lawyers appearing before the judge.
Three judges drew stinger letters for making rude or angry comments toward witnesses, lawyers, or potential jurors; five for making comments suggesting that they had pre-decided the outcome of matters before them or were embroiled in the cases; three for abuse of authority, one for waiting until the end of a hearing to disclose a relationship with an attorney, one for failing to cooperate with the presiding judge regarding scheduling, one for forcing a defendant to proceed when the defendant’s attorney was not present, one for taking absences of more than one-half day without the presiding judge’s approval, one for displaying sarcasm toward a juror and holding the juror in contempt without following proper procedures, and two for other forms of misconduct.
The commission also reported concluding 139 cases in which complaints were filed against commissioners and referees. The commission’s rules require that such complaints be referred to the local courts for investigation and imposition of discipline if warranted; the commission then has discretion to determine whether further proceedings are necessary.
In all but three of the cases, the CJP found the local court’s handling of the matter to be adequate.
In one case, the commission investigated and closed the matter without discipline. In the others, the subordinate judicial officer was fired or resigned and the commission agreed to impose no further discipline in exchange for the person’s agreement not to seek judicial office in the future and to have information regarding the cases sent to the State Bar.
The commission also disclosed yesterday that it elected new leaders at its March 18 meeting. Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Judith D. McConnell will serve as chairperson for the next year and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein as vice chairperson.
McConnell has been a member of the commission since March 2005. The state Supreme Court last month appointed her to a new commission term that expires Feb. 28, 2013.
She had been CJP vice-chairperson since March 2007. She succeeds Orange Superior Court Frederick Van Horn in the chair, although Van Horn was also appointed to a new four-year commission term last month.
Feinstein has been a member of the commission since March 2007.
Also appointed to a new four-year term recently was former Santa Monica Mayor Nathaniel Trives, a public member since 2007. He was reappointed by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company