Wednesday. August 29, 2018
Court of Appeal:
Orange Superior Court Judge Displayed Apparent Gender Bias
Opinion Says That Whether or Not Actual Bias Existed, Inappropriate Comments Require Reversal
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal has reversed an order denying a woman’s bid for a civil harassment restraining order, finding that Orange Superior Court Judge Timothy J. Stafford, even if not actually biased against the plaintiff based on gender, at least created the appearance of being so through inappropriate comments.
Writing for Div. Three, Justice Richard M. Aronson said in an opinion filed Monday, and not certified for publication, that the plaintiff, Kristen B. Ness, is entitled to a new hearing on her request under Code of Civil Procedure §527.6 for a restraining order—with the Superior Court’s presiding judge, Charles Margines, being directed to shift the case to different judge.
One comment by Stafford during an April 5, 2017 hearing sparked an observation by Aronson that the trial judge breached a canon of the Code of Judicial Ethics.
Crossing the Line
Ness complained of sexually suggestive text messages containing raunchy language from defendant Martin L. Stowell, an executive in the landscaping company where she then worked. In July, 2016, she responded to the first of such messages by saying that it “crossed the line”; he retorted that her showing him a December 2015 text message to her husband saying she would perform oral sex on him “every day” if he would buy her a new car likewise “crossed the line.”
Stafford said at the hearing:
“If I got a letter from someone, or a phone call saying, I’ll give you a blow job every day for the rest of your life for a car, we will be at the Mercedes dealer pretty soon....”
Aronson said the comment “does not demonstrate judicial bias,” but declared that it runs afoul of Canon 3(b)(4) which requires that a judge “be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants....”
“The judge’s comment is the antithesis of judicial decorum and courtesy.”
Stafford also said, at the 2017 hearing:
“All right. I feel like I’ve sat for the past four and a half or five hours dealing with junior high school students, both of you, even though you have some gray over your ears.”
He noted that neither Ness’s husband nor Stowell’s wife testified, and remarked they “should be in this definition” because “they had to put up with it” and Ness’s husband had to hear recitations of Stowell’s behavior. The judge remarked:
“It was like Mr. Stowell was pretty much the big man on campus, had the bucks in his back pocket, and the petitioner was the best looking girl in school, and he was going to get her any way he possibly could, all right. And she knew it, and she liked it, because she got things.”
Referring to Ness as “K.N.” (although she litigated in the Superior Court under her actual name), Aronson said:
“The trial court’s comments and references to irrelevant evidence undermine our confidence it properly exercised its discretion in denying K.N.’s request for a restraining order. That the court felt like it was dealing with junior high school students is irrelevant to whether willful harassment existed. Junior high school kids can engage in harassment within the meaning of section 527.6. Whether K.N.’s husband and Stowell’s wife should be present, whether they had to ‘put up’ with the parties’ behavior or whether K.N.’s husband ‘had to listen’ to the parties’ testimony has no direct relevance to the existence of harassment. The undisputed evidence shows Stowell’s conduct was directed at K.N., not at K.N.’s husband.”
“That the conduct may have caused substantial emotional distress to Stowell’s wife was not probative of K.N.’s emotional distress. That Stowell may have been acting like a ‘big man on campus’ does not absolve Stowell of any harassing conduct. Finally, the fact that K.N. used sexually-charged language with her husband in 2015 has no bearing on Stowell’s conduct, including his use of sexually inappropriate language with K.N. in 2016 or 2017.”
With respect to Stafford’s statement that Ness “got things” from Stowell, the justice said that prior to the July 2016 text from the defendant which the plaintiff proclaimed “crossed the line,” she had expressed appreciation for courtesies. He wrote:
“[N]o evidence showed K.N. ‘liked’ Stowell’s attention or ‘got things’ after July 2016. We cannot definitively conclude the judge’s comments show actual bias, but the comments were inappropriate and created an appearance of gender bias because they suggest the female target of a ‘big man on campus’ would like the attention.”
Ness argued that Stafford “completely ignored the law” in ruling against her, and the appeals court said: “We agree.”
The case is K.N. v. Stowell, G054963.
A comment posted by an anonymous litigant on the Robing Room website on April 6, 2017, a day after Stafford’s ruling in Ness’s case, says:
“I filed for a restraining order and was denied my request. The worst part was during the ruling, the judge made sexually derogatory remarks against me as a woman, calling me the ‘prettiest girl in school’ who ‘just liked the attention.’ It was beyond degrading and offensive and made me feel that he had not listened to my 2 hours of testimony or took any of the evidence seriously, and instead just judged me on my appearance. Like everyone else. Including the jerk I was trying to get the restraining order against.”
A May 15 post this year, in connection with a different case, alleges:
“Judge Stafford cut off testimony so he could get home to his wife, Candy. The result is another unprotected woman denied a restraining order.”
On May 9, Stafford denied a restraining order sought by Ocean View School District Trustee Gina Clayton-Tarvin against a blogger who allegedly threatened her at board meetings and via social media, saying that the plaintiff had to have known of consequences inherent in holding public office.
Stafford was appointed to the Superior Court in September 2013, at age 69, by Gov. Jerry Brown. His law degree is from Southwestern.
Ness’s attorney, Brook John Changala, commented yesterday:
“We are pleased overall with the opinion. The appellate court has reaffirmed one of the cornerstones of our justice system—that every party is entitled to a fair and impartial decisionmaker. We also deeply respect the appellate court’s willingness to confront the issue of bias directly.”
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