Monday, May 23, 2016
‘Snoring Dog’ Case...
Ventura Judge Pushes Back Forcefully Against CJP
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Ventura Superior Court judge who received a “stinger” letter from the Commission on Judicial Performance for keeping a service dog she was training at her feet in court has pushed back forcefully against the CJP’s insistence that doing so violates standards of judicial conduct.
Judge Nancy Ayers’ attorneys—Edith R. Matthai, Gabrielle M. Jackson, and Natalie A. Koyyoumdian, of Robie & Matthai—filed a reply last week to the commission’s opposition to Ayers’ petition to the state Supreme Court. Ayers is seeking a writ directing the commission to withdraw the letter.
The attorneys argued that the letter should be withdrawn because there was no clear and convincing evidence of disruption of proceedings or that the decorum of the court has been impacted. Ayers has drawn expressions of support from attorneys who have appeared in her court while the dog was present, and, mostly privately, from judges who see the case as an example of overreaching by the commission.
“Judge Ayers has, throughout her submissions and briefing, candidly acknowledged that occasionally her guide dog in training may make a brief noise,” the attorneys argued. “The commission would have the Court conclude from this acknowledgment that there are regular and repeated disruptions in the courtroom. Not so. There is no evidence that any noise made by the dog interrupted, threw into disorder, or created a problem that prevented a matter from proceeding. The dog does not create a disruption.”
Noises Called Minor
The lawyers went on to explain that the noises made by the dog are minor, and no different in kind from the many sounds that pop up in a trial courtroom—people entering and leaving throughout and between proceedings, talking in the back, cell phones ringing, the court’s own phone ringing, crying children, chairs moving, papers rustling, noise drifting in from the hallway.
“Because of Judge Ayers’ careful management of her training activity, the dogs she has brought to the courtroom are not a disruption,” the lawyers wrote. “She does not bring a dog into the courtroom if it is not ready to understand ‘work time’ and now that its job is to lie quietly at her feet. She…would not engage in the training if it were actually disruptive.”
Ayers has been a judge since 2009, when she was appointed to the Ventura court by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. After working for a firm in the Central Valley, where she grew up, she joined the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, rising to a senior deputy position in a tenure that lasted from 1984 to 2007.
She then joined the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, where she worked until her appointment to the bench.
Her work with guide dogs became the subject of a 2011 Ventura County Star feature headlined “Lab in training goes from doghouse to courthouse.” It explained that Ayers joined Guide Dogs of America’s training program in 1996, after seeing guide dogs being trained in a socialization course in which her Rottweiler was enrolled.
‘Judicial Duties Take Precedence’
The commission argued in its opposition to the writ petition that by having a dog in the courtroom, Ayers failed to “to ensure that her judicial duties take precedence over all other activities.” While her work with guide dogs is “laudable,” and it is appropriate that the dogs be trained in public facilities, the need for the judge to give undivided attention to proceedings renders it improper for Ayers to have the dog in court, the commission insisted.
Her lawyers, however, cited letters from the presiding judges under whom she has served, telling the commission that they approved of her having the dogs in court because she was dedicated and careful in handling them.
They acknowledged that if a violation of the Code of Judicial Ethics had taken place, no presiding judge could excuse it. But there was no violation, they said, and if there had been any problems, the presiding judge at the time would have addressed it.
“In fact, the dogs have been warmly received in the courthouse and, until the false accusations of [Eric] Rodriguez”—the convicted felon who filed the first of two complaints against the judge with the CJP—“no complaint has been made in the over six years Judge Ayers has trained guide dogs while on the bench,” they said.
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