Friday, June 3, 2011
Sixteen Los Angeles Judges Resign From California Judges Assn.
Former Presiding Judge Czuleger Writes Colleagues, Seeking to Stanch Departures
By Sherri M. Okamoto, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger, a member-elect of the California Judges Association Executive Board yesterday sent a letter to his colleagues attempting to stem the flow of bench officers resigning from the group.
CJA Executive Director Stan Bissey yesterday said that 16 bench officers to date have terminated their memberships with the organization. Judge Susan Lopez-Giss and her husband, Judge Harvey Giss, and Judge Robert Dukes are among those who have quit.
Czuleger and Dukes are both former presiding judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Czuleger said he was unaware of how many judges had resigned or were considering resigning, but “I was hearing a lot of people talking about it” and believed “it was going to be a substantial number.”
He said he had received approximately three dozen responses from colleagues indicating they had been planning to quit but were willing to wait until the new Executive Board is seated in September, as he had asked, and see what course the organization takes.
“In that sense, I’m gratified that [my letter] had some positive effect,” Czuleger said.
Bissey, however, downplayed the departures. “We’ve had some resignations, yes, but not any huge numbers,” he said.
While this is “unfortunate,” Bissey remarked, “we have a natural ebb and flow of members every year.”
‘Larger Than Normal’
He allowed that the number of resignations has been “larger than normal” but “we don’t know necessarily why [members] are doing it.” Bissey deferred any comment on this subject to President Keith Davis, who did not return messages left yesterday.
Bissey added that the group has a board meeting scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in Sacramento, so “hopefully this will be part of the discussion, and if there are member concerns, that they are addressed” since “we certainly want to have members that are active, engaged and feel the value of paying their dues.”
Several members have raised concerns regarding a letter sent last month by CJA Executive Board member James Herman to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
The Santa Barbara Superior Court jurist and former State Bar president did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.
Herman’s missive contained artwork from the CJA’s website as a letterhead and indicated the results of a CJA member survey conducted in March—which indicated a majority of the state’s bench officers are dissatisfied with judiciary’s leadership—did not adequately represent the views of the members in his district, which encompasses Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties.
He also noted in his letter that nearly half of the survey respondents who indicated their support for greater local court autonomy were primarily from Los Angeles, but among his constituents, over 83 percent reported satisfaction with existing branch governance.
This communiqué came two days after Davis had sent a letter to the chief justice on behalf of the organization reporting the overall survey results and providing a summary of written comments by respondents.
After news of Herman’s letter spread, members of the CJA Los Angeles Delegation—Judges Kevin Brazile, James Dabney, Mary Thornton House, Charles “Tim” McCoy, Joanne O’Donnell, and Zaven Sinanian—wrote to Davis decrying Herman’s use of “modified (ergo faux) CJA logo/masthead art” to convey a message which was “unauthorized, misleading, and [did] not represent the views of CJA as a whole.”
‘Out of Line’
Bissey, in a May 13 email to the board obtained by the MetNews, also criticized Herman for being “out of line,” and insisted “something needs to be done,” warning “CJA would be radically different should we face the mass exodus of 500 members from Los Angeles....”
Exactly one week after Herman’s letter was sent, Davis released a statement indicating Herman “has expressed his regret over this matter” and they “consider the matter closed.”
Czuelger wrote to his colleagues that he “do[es] not blame our judges for feeling uncomfortable” with the “poor conduct by some members of CJA’s current Board” and “lack of effective action by the CJA Board following the incident” with Herman.
He acknowledged that he “will be only one of six representatives from Los Angeles” on the CJA board once his term begins in September, but asked to be allowed “the opportunity to offer a new voice on the Board and perhaps address some of the recent failures of CJA.”
The jurist promised “to do the best I can to once again make CJA an effective advocate for our judges,” and should the organization “fail to do that or if CJA continue in its current self-destructive conduct,” then “each of us can make the decision as to whether continued membership is warranted.”
Dukes said yesterday that he “fully understand[s] Judge Czuleger’s plea,” and while he hoped Czuleger “can be an instrument of change when he joins the board,” he felt that “the organization I belonged to and once admired has fallen into such a state of leadership that I can no longer remain a member.”
He explained “it appeared to me that there was a small group in their board that was operating on their own agenda and contrary to the mandates of the members and I could no longer as a member condone those actions.”
In a letter to Davis dated May 25, Dukes accused the CJA of having become a “defender” of the AOC and Judicial Council, rather than “an organization with a critical view,” which has “allowed a board member to blatantly pit one district against another and to weaken the mandate of its members derived after extensive polling.”
Dukes further contended the organization’s response to Herman’s letter was “the minimizing of a destructive act, and it leads me to believe that the leadership is more concerned about certain board members than about its general membership.”
In the past, Dukes recalled, “we have had disputes among the officers, but until now never has CJA allowed individual board members to speak independently from the decisions of the board and attempt to marginalize specific courts.”
He concluded the “only consequence I have at my disposal for the bad act of your failing to condemn this action is to withdraw my membership,” but “maybe those on your board who seek to continue in this manner will take notice” if enough others do the same.
Dukes told the MetNews yesterday it was not his intent for his letter to become public, and even though it did “get out to some of the judges,” he said, “they can make their own decisions” about continuing their CJA memberships.
Lopez-Giss also said she felt “everyone has to come to their own decision as to what CJA does for them,” and her decision was “personal” to her.
She said she was “very concerned about the fact that CJA never sent a letter out to its members” to inform them of what actions were being taken to address the issues raised by persons who objected to Herman’s actions, and that she only discovered the organization considered the matter resolved after seeing a story in the MetNews.
“The Executive Board violated the trust of CJA members by not addressing the issue, not giving its members the courtesy of its inquiry,” Lopez-Giss said, and “at that point in time, I felt I couldn’t be part of the CJA anymore.”
In her letter to Bissey last month, Lopez-Giss wrote that “[i]t is evident that there is much disagreement in the judicial branch,” which is “good” since dissent “is the cornerstone of our democracy.” But she complained that when it comes to “issues facing this branch it appears that dissent is viewed as treason, and the dissenters as rebels.”
Since the survey said individual answers would be kept confidential, Lopez-Giss argued this “implied that the total results would be counted, and not parsed” so no one who agreed to participate would “conclude that this was a request to know how the judges of Los Angeles felt about matters compared to judges of Santa Barbara.”
She said yesterday that she did not feel the CJA had responded to the concerns raised by its members, but “if in the future they address these issues and there’s open conversation with its members then I’ll certainly reconsider [quitting].”
Dukes similarly remarked that if “the CJA will respect their own bylaws and member polling, and not allow districts to be pitted against other districts, I will consider rejoining.”
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company