Friday, March 29, 2002
Commission on Judicial Performance Sets Hearing for Van Voorhis
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A hearing has been scheduled for June 24 to investigate accusations that Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis insulted lawyers, staff members and jurors in open court, the Commission on Judicial Performance said yesterday.
The hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. in Courtroom Two of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, located at 95 Seventh Street in San Francisco.
The hearing will be open to the public.
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 was publicly reproved by the commission in 1992 for similar offenses but made assurances of reform after consenting to his 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 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;
•Scolded 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 might want to “lose” it if he hoped to communicate with the jury;
•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.
Van Voorhis denied the charges in a 20-page response, maintaining that his comments to lawyers, jurors, and staff were meant to be helpful, not insulting.
For example, Van Voorhis said he was merely trying to help Alvear communicate better with the jury and the witnesses, difficulties which the judge said he observed during the trial.
“The advice about his accent was prompted by what happened during the course of the trial and was intended to benefit Mr. Alvear as a member of the legal profession,” Van Voorhis wrote in his response to the charges.
He also apologized in writing to the Public Defender’s Office after it complained about the remark, the judge noted.
The hearing will be conducted by special masters appointed by the Supreme Court: Presiding Justice Thomas E. Hollenhorst, of the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Div. Two; Justice Kenneth R. Yegan, Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six; and San Diego Superior Judge Roy B. Cazares.
Van Voorhis is represented by San Francisco attorney James A. Murphy of Murphy, Pearson, Bradley and Feeney. Commission Trail Counsel Jack Coyle will be the examiner.
Once the hearing is complete, the special masters will report to the commission on their findings with respect to the charges. The parties will then have an opportunity to respond to the report before the commission.
If the commission finds the charges are proved by clear and convincing evidence, it can discipline Van Voorhis. If not, the charges will be dismissed.
The commission is made up of three judges, two lawyers, and six public members. The panel is chaired by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Rise Jones Pichon.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company