Tuesday, September 1, 2009
CJP Admonishes Schnider for Failing to Supervise Commissioner
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday publicly admonished retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert A. Schnider for failing to supervise a commissioner who was recently censured for persistent failure to meet deadlines for deciding cases.
In a 9-2 decision, the commission said Schnider, the family law supervising judge from 2005 through 2007, “was aware that Commissioner [Ann] Dobbs was not deciding all of her cases in a timely manner, but failed to take sufficient action to ensure that she did so.”
The CJP last month censured Dobbs and barred her from receiving court appointments.
In accepting that discipline, Dobbs, who retired in October 2007, acknowledged that Schnider had previously sent her three grievances from family law litigants complaining of delays ranging from six months to five years in receiving decisions in their cases. While Dobbs acknowledged receipt of the complaints, she never responded to the allegations contained therein.
When Dobbs retired, she agreed to complete work on undecided cases from home and took approximately 30 cases, of which 15 had been under submission for over 90 days.
During the three months after her retirement, Dobbs did not complete any of these cases and the court retrieved the files from her in January 2008. The cases were assigned to other judicial officers and mistrials were declared in at least 15 cases. Several cases also had to be retried.
As an outgrowth of its investigation into Dobbs, the commission notified Schnider that it was considering admonishing him. The commission disclosed yesterday that he had exercised his right to appear before the commission in closed session to contest the proposed discipline.
In its decision yesterday, the commission held that Schnider violated ethics rules that require supervising judges to take reasonable steps to ensure prompt disposition of cases before judicial officers subject to their oversight, and which require all judges to take reasonable corrective action when they learn of ethics violations by other judicial officers and to uphold the integrity of the judiciary.
The commission rejected Schnider’s contentions that he was justified in relying on Dobbs’ assurances that she would complete the work promptly, and that he fulfilled his duties to the attorneys and litigants who complained about Dobbs by reporting their concerns to her. Dobbs’ failure to respond to the supervising judge did not excuse him from carrying out his supervisory responsibilities, the commission said.
“The rules do not require the presiding judge or designee to wait indefinitely for a response from the subordinate judicial officer before responding to a complainant,” the commission said. “To the contrary, [California Rules of Court] rule 10.703(d) requires that complaints against subordinate judicial officers be processed promptly” and resolved within 90 days if possible.
As Dobbs’ supervisor, the CJP noted, Schnider received monthly reports showing that she had more than 30 cases that had been under submission for at least 30 days. A statewide rule of court, the commission pointed out, requires that a presiding judge, or a judge such as Schnider to whom the presiding judge’s authority has been delegated, counsel a bench officer who has cases under submission for more than 30 days, and take active steps to assist a jurist whose cases remain undecided after 60 days.
Schnider, the commission explained, spoke to Dobbs about the reports, but failed to verify her claims that the cases had been decided or that the submission dates on the reports were erroneous or had been vacated, nor did he verify that she had followed legal requirements for vacating submission dates. While he attempted to ease her burden by reassigning more than 300 of her cases, and by giving her a week off the bench to work solely on submitted cases, he failed to act after she decided no submitted cases during that week, the CJP found.
“The commission concludes that Judge Schnider was seriously derelict in discharging his duty to supervise Commissioner Dobbs and demonstrated a disregard for the concerns of litigants who complained about their delayed cases,” the panel said.
The commission chairperson, Fourth District Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Judith D. McConnell, voted for the public admonishment, as did Orange Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Horn, attorneys Peter Flores and Marshall Grossman, and public members Samuel Hardage, Barbara Schraeger, Maya Dillard Smith, Sandra Talcott and Nathaniel Trives. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein and public member Lawrence Simi said a private admonishment would have been sufficient.
Schnider referred a requst for comment to his attorney, James A. Murphy of San Francisco, who said the judge was “embarrassed by this blemish on his judicial career.” By choosing to waive formal proceedings and appear before the commission, the attorney noted, Schnider gave up his right to seek review in the California Supreme Court.
Murphy told the MetNews that the decision was unfair. “Judge Schnider accepted responsibility for has actions, but it should be tempered by the fact that he was dealing with a commissioner who had been appointed by the judges of the superior court after a vetting process” designed to ensure that she was competent to perform her duties, the attorney said.
As supervising judge, he said, his client “didn’t sign on to be a kindergarten teacher.” While he had certain tasks as supervising judge, Murphy added, “he felt that he had performed those responsibilities in a reasonable fashion.”
Schnider, he said, should not be faulted because Dobbs offered reasonable-sounding explanations which turned out not to be truthful. The supervising judge, he said, lacked the time and the resources to personally investigate whether Dobbs was telling him the truth, and no particular reason to believe that she wasn’t.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company