Friday, May 15, 2015
Kern Superior Court Judge Admonished by CJP for Comments To Court Administrator, Attorney
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A longtime Kern Superior Court judge was publicly admonished yesterday by the Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday for making inappropriate comments to a court administrator and a lawyer as a result of a court personnel dispute.
Judge John Fielder, 67, engaged in “at minimum, improper action” in connection with the two incidents, the commission noted, adding that it found public discipline appropriate, in part because Fielder has been privately disciplined on four prior occasions.
Fielder has been a member of the trial bench for more than 33 years. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the former Bakersfield Municipal Court in 1981, after he had spent a year as a commissioner of that court and six years as a deputy public defender.
Yesterday’s findings dovetail with the commission’s findings in a separate case against another Kern jurist, Judge Cory Woodward. Woodward was censured last September after admitting that for nearly 10 months in 2012 and 2013, he had an intimate relationship with his court clerk that involved “sexual activity...in chambers” and in “public places.”
Woodward also admitted that he had misled the presiding judge and others as to the nature of the relationship and had improperly resisted efforts to have the clerk reassigned.
Fielder, the commission explained in its decision yesterday, was Woodward’s supervising judge when the two of them met with Deputy Chief Court Executive Officer for Court Operations Marie Castaneda regarding the administration’s decision to reassign the clerk.
Fielder, the commission said, admitted during the disciplinary proceedings that he “improperly displayed considerable irritation toward the court administrator and engaged in a discussion that was too aggressive, too heavy-handed, and could have been intimidating to court administration,” including accusing the administration of being “in violation” of court protocol for moving a clerk from a judge’s courtroom and saying that administration should not be “messing around” with judges’ courtrooms.
He also threatened that the judges, rather than allow the administration to transfer clerks, “would get together and fire” the court executive officer, the commission said, although he subsequently acknowledged that the comment was “out of line.”
He also complained that the clerk “was getting the shaft” and had done nothing to warrant the transfer. But Fielder acknowledged, and the commission found, that it is unethical for judges to intercede in disputes between the court administration and its subordinates.
Fielder’s actions, the commission said, violated ethical canons that require judges to avoid having their personal relationships affect their official actions, avoid lending the prestige of their office to advance the personal interests of others, deal courteously with court employees, and cooperate with court administration.
In a separate incident, the commission found, Fielder criticized an attorney based on the language of a declaration attached to an ex parte application for a hearing on a motion to stay an order made by Woodward in a family law matter and to disqualify Woodward under Code of Civil Procedure §170.1.
The declaration said that Woodward should not be presiding over the attorney’s family law matter in light of recent “allegations of perhaps substantial inappropriate behavior and/or misconduct between Judge Woodward and his staff” resulting in “tremendous pressure placed upon Judge Woodward, Judge Woodward’s family and other issues.”
Fielder called the lawyer into chambers and suggested he resubmit the declaration with toned-down language. Fielder acknowledged that he was upset that the declaration “cast aspersions on Judge Woodward’s family,” and made “mean-spirited and unnecessary comments” that should not be made “in a public document.”
Fielder said he did not recall telling the lawyer that the declaration could not be filed as submitted, but acknowledged the attorney might have taken the judge’s comments to mean that. The attorney said he concluded that was the case and modified the document before resubmitting it the same day.
The commission said the sole matter before Fielder was whether a request to stay enforcement could be filed as an ex parte application, and that the judge overstepped his bounds by suggesting that the declaration needed to be altered because of Fielder’s “concerns about the court’s reputation and Judge Woodward’s family.”
The judge, the CJP found, violated the canons regarding maintaining public confidence in the judiciary, allowing personal relationships to influence judicial conduct, and seeking to advance the personal interests of others.
The commission noted that Fielder received “stinger” letters in 1992—for taking a guilty plea from an unrepresented defendant without a waiver of counsel—and 1994—for being rude to a witness—along with a private admonishment for conduct that included appearing to coerce guilty and no-conduct pleas.
In other news, the commission approved an amendment to its rules that allows its staff to share confidential information with regulatory agencies.
In response to comments by the California Judges Association and individual judges, who expressed concerns that unsubstantiated or preliminary information might be disclosed and might have an undue influence on the recipient agency, the commission said, the rule as adopted limits disclosure to cases in which allegations against the judge are sufficiently serious and substantiated to warrant the launching of a preliminary investigation.
The final version of the rule also says disclosure is permitted only “in the interest of justice, to protect the public or to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice” and requires that the recipient agency be admonished as to the confidential nature of the information. The CJP said it had rejected, however, a proposal that disclosure be limited to cases in which discipline was imposed.
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