Thursday, January 12, 2012
CJP Orders Removal of Superior Court Judge Richard Stanford
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday ordered the removal of veteran Orange Superior Court Judge Richard W. Stanford Jr. from office for a pattern of misconduct involving the diversion of traffic tickets for his pastor, his court clerk, and his son-in-law over a five-year period.
The commission’s decision is subject to discretionary review by the California Supreme Court. Costa Mesa attorney Paul S. Meyer, who represented Stanford during the CJP proceedings, said his client intends to seek review.
No judge has succesfully challenged a removal order since the CJP was given the power to take that step, part of Proposition 190, approved by voters in 1995.
Meyer said “Judge Stanford recognizes that the decision of the Commission was a difficult one in balancing the image of the judiciary with appropriate discipline….”
He noted that the judge has “apologized for his actions, and accepted full responsibility,” and that Stanford “was supported in his defense by testimony and written statements of virtually every judge on the Orange County bench.”
The attorney maintained that “[t]hose who know Judge Stanford respect his character and dedication and are saddened by this decision.”
CJP Chair Judith D. McConnell, presiding justice of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, authored yesterday’s ruling for the 11-member panel.
The decision to remove Stanford was unanimous, although commission member Frederick P. Horn, a judge of the Orange Superior Court, was recused.
The CJP commenced formal proceedings last April, and a panel of special masters—consisting of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor, First District Court of Appeal Justice Maria Rivera, and Glenn Superior Court Judge Donald C. Byrd—convened a three-day hearing on the evidence at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse last July.
Oral argument before the panel took place in September, and the special masters returned their report to the commission in October. Stanford appeared before the commission on Dec. 7.
McConnell said the masters found that Stanford had engaged in nine instances of willful misconduct between 2005 and 2010, and had “created both the appearance and the reality of a two-track system of justice—one for his friends and family and another for all others.”
She said the CJP reached the same conclusion, but it based its decision to remove Stanford on seven events which occurred within six years of the start of the judge’s current term, which is the limitations period for formal discipline. These involved traffic infractions to Stanford’s friends and family members, for which the judge had had issued dispositions which waived fines and fees for the offenders.
Directions to Clerk
Stanford’s supervisors learned of his actions, McConnell said, after Stanford issued written directions to her clerk to enter a disposition for his son-in-law, and the clerk, upon recognizing the defendant as being related to the judge, gave the document to her supervisor to assign to someone else.
The supervisor reported the matter to the deputy court operations manager, who alerted then-Presiding Judge Kim Dunning.
Dunning testified that she met with Stanford and informed him that “you can’t do this,” due to the appearance of impropriety. She said Stanford told her he thought that it was not unusual for a traffic defendant to have fines and fees reduced or eliminated, but she informed him that recent fiscal issues had impacted the collection of these penalties.
During the meeting, Dunning said, Stanford was “receptive and cooperative,” and she opined that he had “missed the issue” up until that point. She said Stanford admitted his actions, and volunteered that he had taken similar actions in the past, but he did not disclose that he had handled a ticket for his clerk and did not provide details about his assistance to other friends.
Stanford subsequently wrote a check for the full bail amount of the ticket issued to his son-in-law, and then asked a traffic clerk to enter the disposition. Dunning testified that she did not expect Stanford to order a disposition in this matter following their meeting, but she claimed “responsibility for this because I didn’t articulate [how the matter was to be handled.]”
When he appeared before the special masters, Stanford claimed that he had “missed” the potential for a conflict of interest in adjudicating the traffic tickets for his friends and family, and had “a blind spot” which prevented him from realizing the impropriety of his actions.
The special masters found this to be true, but the CJP declined to adopt this finding. “[E]ven if the judge’s misconduct was an aberration or motivated by his proclivity to help others, we find it implausible that Judge Stanford was entirely unconscious of the impropriety of his actions when he handled the traffic tickets of family and friends,” McConnell said.
She acknowledged that “numerous fellow jurists testified and submitted letters attesting to Judge Stanford’s integrity and opining that he would not have handled the tickets of friends and family if he knew it was wrong,” but surmised that it was “not surprising that those who know and respect Judge Stanford would have difficulty reconciling their view of the judge’s integrity with his having knowingly engaged in unethical conduct.”
McConnell reasoned that “Stanford’s 26 years on the bench, long career as a prosecutor, and reputation as a ‘by-the-book’ judge who does not ‘cut corners’ and is knowledgeable, diligent and follows the law negates any possibility that he missed the issue.”
She pointed out that the judge’s clerk, “did not ‘miss the issue’ when asked to enter the disposition for Judge Stanford’s son-in-law,” and that “[m]embers of the public know instinctively that a judge should not handle traffic tickets of family and friends.” Accordingly, she opined Stanford “did not miss the issue, he ignored the issue.”
The CJP also declined to adopt the finding by the special masters that Stanford was reasonable in believing his actions conformed to common practices in the trial court.
McConnell emphasized that the dispositions ordered by Stanford were “unusually lenient,” and that “it has never been proper to waive fees and fines in traffic court for no reason or to benefit friends and family.”
As a criminal courts judge, McConnell further reasoned, Stanford “knows that sentences and fees and fines change over time,” but “he never bothered to inquire whether sentencing practices in traffic court had changed” since he had presided there.
“Wearing blinders may have provided Judge Stanford with a rationalization for his conduct, but it did not render his unfounded belief that he was acting within the mainstream of traffic citation dispositions reasonable,” she wrote.
McConnell concluded that Stanford “has engaged in a pattern of willful misconduct involving the abuse of judicial authority to benefit family and friends” which “affronts the very essence of a fair and impartial judiciary.”
In addition to providing “substantial financial breaks to the favored few,” she said, Stanford also “repeatedly engaged in ex parte communications, entered dispositions based on hearsay information from his wife, failed to recuse when there were obvious conflicts of interest, handled matters not assigned to his court, and waived fees and fines without considering the facts of the offense, the driver’s record, or public safety.”
She explained that the commission has “previously recognized the gravity of this type of misconduct by imposing the maximum discipline on judges who engaged in a pattern of providing preferential treatment to family and friends in the adjudication of traffic matters,” and so “[w]e remove Judge Stanford from office in order to fulfill our mandate to protect the public, enforce rigorous standards of judicial conduct, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and the even-handed administration of justice.”
The only other Orange Superior Court judge to have been removed from office, either under Proposition 190 or prior to its passage, when the Supreme Court had the power to remove judges on the CJP’s recommendation, was Kelly MacEachern.
She was removed from office in June 2008 for having engaged in willful misconduct by claiming reimbursement for attending judicial education classes that she did not, and was not authorized to, take.
Stanford, 64, is an Orange County native. He graduated from CSU Fullerton before attending law school at USC and joining the State Bar in 1973.
He went to work for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office upon being licensed to practice, then was tapped for the Central Orange County Municipal Court in 1985.
Stanford was elevated to the Superior Court in 1998.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company