Friday, November 4, 2011
CJP Admonishes Former Riverside Judge, Now D.A.
Zellerbach, Who Ousted Incumbent in Bitter Race, Draws Discipline for Third Time
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday publicly admonished former Riverside Superior Court Judge Paul E. Zellerbach for misconduct committed before he took office as the county’s chief prosecutor in January.
Zellerbach, who was represented by Edith Matthai of Robie & Matthai, appeared before the commission last month to oppose the discipline, but the commission voted 9-1 in favor of a public admonishment, with the dissenting vote being in favor of a private reproval.
He told the MetNews yesterday that he “strongly disagree[s] with the commissions findings and conclusions,” which were based on “sour grapes, or politically motivated allegations” by former District Attorney Rod Pacheco, whom Zellerbach defeated last year after a bitter campaign.
Zellerbach said all of the complaints had come from Pacheco, and were made either during the campaign, or after Zellerbach had been declared the winner.
If his comments, made during a 2009 hearing, were “so egregious,” Zellerbach quried, “why didn’t Pacheco complain at that point in time?”
He also noted that he presided over three death penalty trials that year, and insisted the fact that “prosecutors were seeking me out to hear their most serious cases…flies in the face of allegations that I can’t be fair and impartial.”
The commission’s eight-page decision related that Zellerbach, who joined the Riverside Superior Court in 2000, made repeated statements from the bench “that would reasonably be perceived as bias or prejudice against [then] District Attorney Pacheco, and his office.”
During a hearing on a discovery motion in a criminal case against Holly Ann Gunnette—the treasurer for Pacheco’s 1996 campaign for the Assembly—Zellerbach expressed dissatisfaction with the way the prosecutor had handled an issue and said he was encountering instances “all the time” where the District Attorney’s office was “[n]ot doing their job properly.”
Zellerbach later in that hearing referred to the District Attorney’s Executive Division as Pacheco’s “PR firm.”
The commission noted that this description had first been used by a local newspaper, but said “this does not justify the judge’s use of the disparaging label in reference to a party appearing before the judge.”
In his written objections to the notice of intended public admonishment and at his appearance before the commission, Zellerbach acknowledged that these comments should not have been made, but asked the commission to consider them in light of the case backlog crippling the Riverside Superior Court at that time, which he attributed to Pacheco’s policies as district attorney.
The commission acknowledged the judge’s “concerns and frustrations over problems facing the courts in his county,” but insisted “a judge must stay above the fray of political discord in the performance of judicial duties.”
Zellerbach’s comments about the district attorney’s office “created an appearance of bias and were disparaging, undignified, and discourteous,” which violated the canons of the Code of Judicial Ethics, the CJP said.
Lack of Disclosure
The commission also found Zellerbach had committed additional violations by failing to disclose that he was actively considering running against Pacheco while continuing to preside over cases being handled by the district attorney’s office until at least February of last year, in asking the Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys Association to delay its endorsement decision until a possible challenger to the incumbent emerged, and in allowing his judicial title to be used to solicit money from individuals to advance his interests in retiring his campaign debt after he was elected.
This was the third occasion on which Zellerbach has been disciplined.
In 2006, he received a public admonishment for attending a baseball game while a jury was deliberating in a murder case, without having arranged for another judge to take the verdict, and for not returning from the game or allowing another judge to accept the verdict when he was informed a verdict had been reached. The commission found that this was a serious dereliction of judicial duty, and that Zellerbach had failed to give his judicial duties precedence over all other activities as required by the Code of Judicial Ethics.
Three years prior, Zellerbach received an advisory letter for making harsh comments to a doctor who was late to court, and threatening to hold him in contempt.
Zellerbach was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Political Science at UC Davis, before attending law school at California Western University in San Diego, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1978.
After graduation, Zellerbach joined the Riverside County District Attorney’s office, where he served for 22 years before being elected to the bench.
Matthai said yesterday the former judge is “focused on being the best D.A. that Riverside can have.”
She acknowledged that Zellerbach “made some mistakes while running for office,” as the CJP found, but emphasized that he pursued his current position in order to address the “many problems” the district attorney’s office had, that he has “done a lot to fix the problems,” and that “he is where he wants to be.”
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company