Thursday, December 20, 2001
CJP Charges Bay Area Judge With Insulting Lawyers, Jurors, Staff
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Contra Costa Superior Court judge who was publicly reproved in 1992 for insulting lawyers, staff members and jurors in open court faces new discipline for a pattern of similar violations over the past two years, the Commission on Judicial Performance said yesterday.
Judge Bruce Van Voorhis engaged in willful misconduct and brought his court into disrepute by, among other things, suggesting that an Ecuadorian-born deputy public defender “lose that accent” and telling a rookie prosecutor after a trial that he had intentionally excluded admissible evidence in order to see how she would handle it, the commission said in a notice of formal proceedings.
Van Voorhis is a former judge of the Walnut Creek-Danville Municipal Court, to which he was elected in 1986 and on which he was serving at the time of the prior reproval. He joined the Superior Court when the county trial courts unified in 1998.
He was a prosecutor in Alameda County for more than 11 years prior to his election to the bench.
The judge’s attorney, James A. Murphy of San Francisco, said it would be “premature” to comment on the charges in detail, since he had not yet had an opportunity to review all of the documentation relied on by the commission. He did say, however, that some of the statements attributed to the judge were never made and that others were taken out of context.
Van Voorhis, he said, is “universally” regarded by those who know him as “a very intelligent, smart, well-reasoned, intellectual judge who makes correct rulings.”
A formal response to the charges, which could result in removal from office or censure, is due Jan. 3.
The commission alleged in its notice that Van Voorhis:
•Excluded statements made to the police by a drunk driving defendant, then told the deputy district attorney, who had been a lawyer less than three months, after the trial that the statements were really admissible;
•Demeaned the same prosecutor by instructing her, after the judge sustained an objection to a question about the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, to tell the jurors that the test “doesn’t mean anything” and by later overruling her relevancy objection to a defense question and ordering her to tell the jury that the evidence was relevant;
•Made similar remarks to another rookie prosecutor, suggesting after she asked a defendant whether he was on probation that she was “just guessing” that the evidence was admissible and that she “could be in a lot of trouble” if she wasn’t “more careful in my courtroom” and would have to “tangle” with him if she didn’t abide by his rulings;
•Berated a defense attorney in another case by, among other things, telling him to ask “the question that you learned in law school was a legitimate question”;
•Told a prosecutor in another drunk driving case that he would not allow an officer to testify about the nystagmus test unless the officer qualified as an expert, then said that she would have “wasted a lot of time” if she unsuccessfully attempted to qualify him and suggested to the jury that she was incompetent;
•Made inappropriate remarks to Deputy Public Defender Elvear Alvarez about his accent, commenting in open court that while it was “charming,” the lawyer would have trouble communicating if he retained it;
•Yelled at a clerk because files hadn’t yet been brought to court, then later in the day yelled at her again because some defendants were in another courtroom when they were supposed to be in his, as a result of which the clerk complained and was reassigned and Van Voorhis was admonished by the presiding judge;
•Criticized another clerk in open court for taking 20 seconds of court time to swear in the bailiff to take charge of the jurors, suggesting that the matter could have been handled silently and off the record;
•Yelled at a deputy sheriff in open court because an apparent clerical error had resulted in a defendant not being brought to court, suggesting that the bailiff explain to the deputy how to do his job; and
•Criticized the grammar with which a jury question was asked, resulting in letters of complaint from two of the jurors.
The commission noted that the judge had made assurances of reform after consenting to his 1992 reproval for engaging in unauthorized ex parte communications, failing to exhibit patience and courtesy, and improperly predicting the outcome of a criminal case.
The commission noted then that he had given directions to his staff “in a manner which was perceived as harsh,” twice used “a sarcastic and intimidating tone” toward attorneys requesting continuances, and twice questioned potential jurors in a manner that caused them “to perceive a lack of sensitivity and to feel intimidated.”
He was also reproved for election misconduct, admitting that he misrepresented his marital status in the 1986 campaign by referring to his ex-wife, with whom he continued to live after their divorce, as his wife.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company