Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Los Angeles Superior Court, Office No. 40
Two judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court have been challenged in the March 5 primary, C. Robert Simpson and Floyd Baxter.
We endorsed Simpson at the outset of the campaign, wholeheartedly.
We cannot endorse Baxter.
Whether he intentionally fibs or has a memory problem, we believe his incessant deviations from the truth render him unfit for judicial service.
Too, we question the sufficiency of his legal knowledge. Last year, his ordered the no-bail jailing of a woman who had just been convicted of a minor offense. In so doing, he defied the dictates of Penal Code §1272 which affords an absolute right to bail at that point. This blunder was astounding in light of the fact that Baxter has been on the bench since 1985.
He was named that year to the Newhall Municipal Court, where he remained until the Newhall Municipal Court was incorporated, along with the other municipal courts, into the Los Angeles Superior Court in January, 2000.
One of several misstatements by Baxter which we encountered was his insistence that when the Newhall Municipal Court set about to hire a commissioner in 1997, he “abstained from the whole process” because one applicant was his former law partner. Yet, three of those who were interviewed for the post, including the former partner, Thomas White, say that Baxter participated in interviewing them. And both of the two men who were then his colleagues on the Municipal Court insist that Baxter participated with them in making the final selection.
To have taken part in the selection process is a reflection of bad judgment on Baxter’s part. White, his ex-partner, was chosen. And perhaps he deserved to be chosen; he draws high marks from local attorneys. And perhaps the fact that he had been a partner of Baxter several years before and for a short time—from about 1979-81—did not influence Baxter in the least. Nonetheless, there is, at a minimum, an appearance of impropriety.
The lapse of judgment on Baxter’s part in participating in the selection process is a concern which is dwarfed by his flat assertion that he “abstained from the whole process.” It is inconceivable to us that everyone but Baxter is confused. If Baxter’s powers of recollection are dimming, then, owing to no fault on his part, he is losing the capacity to serve in judicial office, and should gracefully resign. If he is another Patrick Couwenberg, a perpetual teller of falsehoods which he knows to be false, he is, by virtue of a character defect, unfit to be a judge.
Baxter’s pronouncement that, as a Municipal Court judge, he declined elevation to the Superior Court hints at a propensity on his part for intentional truth-bending. It turns out that no governor offered him a Superior Court seat. The statement that he “turned down the elevation” was based merely on having spurned the purported advice of the Los Angeles Superior Court’s supervising judge in Van Nuys to apply for elevation. (Whether any such advice was given is unknown; he says he can’t remember who the judge was.)
Certainly, Baxter’s decision to use the ballot designation “Judge/Law Professor” is deliberate. The use of the word “professor”—though he is merely an adjunct professor who teaches a night class once a week—cannot be criticized too severely. In 1996, then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne permitted Patrick Murphy, then a judge of the Citrus Municipal Court, to use such a designation. Murphy taught at Glendale College of Law. Two yeas ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe gave the green light to the use of the word “Professor” by Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan, though he was but an “instructor” at El Camino College, a junior college. While the use of the word “Professor” might be defensible in light of the rulings by Wayne and Yaffe, the use of “law professor” is not. The clear implication of “law professor” is one who teaches at a law school. Baxter does not teach at a law school. He teaches at College of the Canyons, a community college (a two-year institution, formerly known as a “junior college”).
Baxter’s rationalization that his campaign consultant, Fred Huebscher, told him to use that designation reveals a sorrowful failure on Baxter’s part to take responsibility for his own actions. Huebscher might have advised Baxter to take the action he did in listing himself as a law professor; it is Baxter who did it.
Then there’s the case of People v. Jensen. According to Baxter’s account, on a Friday, he imposed a 30-day sentence on a misdemeant who had lied on the stand and was arrogant; he was criticized in the Los Angeles Times and the Newhall Signal for the harshness of the sentence; on Monday, he called the defendant back, she was now more humble, and he put her on probation. This is a highly altered version of what happened.
Baxter fails to mention the action he took which drew the adverse press attention. Al Martinez, in his Times column, and the Signal, in an editorial, lambasted him for denying bail to a defendant with a spotless record, a PTA president-elect, who had been convicted of bumping into a car and not leaving a note.
Under orders from Baxter, the defendant, Linda Jensen, was incarcerated from the time of her conviction on Wednesday, April 4, 2001, to the sentencing hearing the following Monday, at which she was placed on probation,
At that April 9 hearing, the judge indicated he had intended to sentence her to 30 days in jail, but relented. Whether he was swayed by the prosecution’s recommendation of no jail time, the identical recommendation in the probation report, or the fact that about 50 letters had been written in her behalf by members of the community and the audience was filled with well-wishers from the vicinage, is not known.
Baxter’s announced rationale at the time was that Jensen was a flight risk. Even if she had fled from a parking lot after bumping into a parked vehicle (and there is doubt as to her guilt), it is hardly conceivable that she would have fled her home and family to elude authorities.
His statements to this newspaper in an interview, which roughly comport with what he purportedly told the attorneys in the case in chambers, reveal a different motivation for the jailing. He says he was offended by her indignation at being put on trial (a response that was clearly justified if she was, as she has insisted, innocent) and because he thought she had lied on the stand. She testified that a dent on her truck was not the result of hitting a car in a parking lot, but was an old dent—and she showed a videotape she said was taken four years earlier which revealed the dent. The judge claims he spotted the current year’s registration tag on the car, proving to him the tape had been recorded subsequent to the accident. The prosecution had stipulated to the authenticity of the tape. Baxter did not share his impression with the lawyers until after Jensen was incarcerated.
It would appear that the pre-sentencing jailing was intended as punishment for the uncharged crime of perjury against which she had no opportunity to defend.
Jensen recounts that her lawyer told her in a telephone conversation while she was in jail about the judge’s perception that the tape was a fraud. She says:
“At that time, he said it was because the ‘Live Oak Super Kid’ sticker seen on the bumper of the truck in the video was still visible in recent photos of the vehicle and did not look to him to have aged five years. Of course, all one had to do to authenticate the tape was present to his honor Exhibit A and Exhibit B, namely my two sons, who had grown to three times the sizes they were in the video. My eleven year old son, Reese, put it best when he noted that he had been awarded the sticker in question when he was in the first grade (an event that was also recorded on videotape).”
That the judge would take a punitive action against a defendant based on an impression of his without affording any opportunity to show that he was wrong reveals a shameful lack of commitment to fairness.
That’s bad enough. For a judge who has handled misdemeanor case after misdemeanor case through the years not to know that a convicted misdemeanant is entitled to bail after being convicted, and through any appeal, is deplorable. Of course, if Baxter did know that, and caused the jailing of Jensen, nonetheless, it would entail judicial misconduct of shocking and appalling proportion. Charitably, we assume ignorance on his part.
We are caused to wonder how many other defendants, whose cases did not attract press attention, have had their rights trammelled by this judge.
While we are unwilling to embrace the candidacy of Baxter, we cannot endorse his challenger, attorney/arbitrator Ross Stucker. Stucker, who had been performing the role of a commissioner for the Newhall court on a per diem basis prior to a commissionership being legislatively authorized, was disappointed to have lost out to White. He is now in a race against one of the three judges who declined to hire him.
He has refused to be interviewed, except when he returned a reporter’s phone call on Monday and related he did not know his County Bar rating because he has not picked up his mail. He has provided no public statement as to why he should be chosen over the incumbent.
We can’t back a candidate in hiding. If he is so lacking in a sense of accountability before the election that he will not answer questions, he would most certainly be insular if elected.
Given the futility of running against a Superior Court judge with no issues to trumpet and no campaign finances, we view Stucker’s candidacy as reflecting poorly on his judgment.
Since 1980, this newspaper has made endorsements in every Los Angeles Superior Court race with the exception of one, in 1984.
For the first time in 18 years, we have no recommendation.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company