Thursday, June 1, 2017
CJP Admonishes Judge Over Facebook Election Post
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday publicly admonished an Orange Superior Court judge for an inappropriate Facebook post attacking a prosecutor who tried to unseat one of his colleagues in last year’s election.
Judge Jeff Ferguson displayed a “knowing or reckless disregard for the truth” and violated several ethics rules in connection with his post about Deputy District Attorney Karen Schatzle, the commission said in a formal decision. The judge elected to proceed under CJP rule 116, which permitted him to waive formal proceedings that would have been open to the public, instead appearing with counsel at a closed-door meeting of the commission to contest the discipline.
The public admonishment ends the case, because a judge who proceeds under rule 116 waives the right to petition for Supreme Court review.
Judge Scott Steiner defeated Schatzle 56 to 44 percent, after a campaign in which the challenger made an issue of Steiner’s 2014 admonishment by the CJP for having sexual intercourse with two women in his chambers, and for recommending one of the women for a prosecutor’s position without disclosing he had an intimate relationship with her.
The admonishment of Ferguson resulted from his response to a post by Schatzle on the North Orange County Bar Association’s Facebook page in April of last year.
“Scott Steiner uses his office for sex and yet so many aren’t concerned, crazy politics!”
Ferguson posted in response:
“Karen Shatzle [sic] has sex with defense lawyer whike [sic] shw [sic] is DA on his cases and nobody cares. Interesting politics.”
The CJP said Feguson provided no evidence that Schatzle was intimate with a defense attorney while the two were opposing each other on cases, a charge that the prosecutor and the defense lawyer denied. The post was removed after Schatzle responded to it.
The commission said Ferguson violated provisions of the Code of Judicial Ethics that require judges to observe high standards of personal conduct, avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, conduct his or her extrajudicial activities so as not to demean his or her office, avoid political activity that may create an appearance of impropriety.
Ferguson was also admonished for having “friended” three lawyers who appeared before him without notifying opposing counsel. The CJP noted that Ferguson unfriended the trio after being contacted by the commission.
The commission said Ferguson violated three ethics rules, including one requiring judges to avoid allowing family, social, political, or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment, and not convey or permit others to convey the impression that any individual is in a special position to influence the judge.
The commission credited Ferguson for having acknowledged wrongdoing and taken corrective action, but said “these mitigating factors do not outweigh the seriousness of his misconduct in accusing a judicial candidate of ethical impropriety with reckless disregard for the truth,” conduct it said “was not only potentially injurious to the candidate, but also undermined public respect for the judiciary and the integrity of the electoral process.”
The commission voted 6-2 for the public admonishment, with Court of Appeal Presiding Justice and commission Chair Ignacio Ruvolo, Trinity Superior Court Judge Michael B. Harper, attorney Nanci E. Nishimura, and public members Richard Simpson; Mary Lou Aranguren; and Adam N. Torres in the majority. Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Erica Yew and public member Patty A. Kasparian voted for a private admonishment.
Attorney Anthony P. Capozzi and public member Sarah Kruer Jager were not present for the vote. Public member Dr. Michael A. Moodian was recused.
A lawyer for Ferguson said the judge had swiftly removed his “late night retort.” Paul S. Meyer told The Associated Press that “Judge Ferguson again apologizes for his thoughtless comment.”
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