Tuesday, August 6, 2002
CJP Orders San Joaquin Judge Removed for Fixing Tickets
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance ordered San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Michael E. Platt removed from the bench yesterday for ticket fixing and using improper influence.
Platt, 53, disgraced the judiciary by engaging in a pattern of misconduct, then exacerbated his wrongdoing by telling the commission that he didn’t see his actions as improper at the time, the commission said in its decision.
The commission expressed incredulity at the claim by Platt—a judge for eight years and a former prosecutor—that he did not realize that judges can’t intervene to help friends with cases in other courtrooms.
The judicial watchdog agency began an investigation of Platt in May of last year, after a complaint that he had instructed a court clerk to dismiss a traffic ticket issued to Lisa Limbaugh-Guardado, the wife of Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Eddie Guardado, even though no hearing had been held and the case was assigned to another judge, and had told the clerk not to disclose their conversation.
[The pitcher and his wife were identified throughout the decision as “Mr. G” and “Mrs. G.” Guardado, however, was identified by name in the commission’s notice of formal charges, and both he and his wife had been named in previous news reports about the case.]
Further investigation revealed that the judge had, in 1999 and 2000, dismissed tickets issued to Guardado—whose salaries for the years in which the tickets were issued were $850,000, $875,000, and $1.8 million, according to the website baseball-reference.com—his niece, and a bailiff’s son in cases that were not assigned to the judge and would not normally have come before him.
By a vote of 10-0, the commission sustained seven counts of unethical conduct. It found that Platt fixed traffic tickets for four people—the pitcher’s wife and niece, and a bailiff’s son—and that he had ex parte contacts with other judicial officers concerning three cases.
The vote to remove him from the bench was 9-1, with Ramona Ripston, the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California and a public member of the commission, dissenting. Ripston voted to censure the judge instead.
Platt admitted helping Guardado, a friend and Stockton resident, who had loaned the judge $3,500 in October 1998. The debt was discharged in a 1999 bankruptcy.
Platt dismissed speeding tickets issued to Guardado and his niece, even though the cases were not assigned to him. He also told a clerk in another courtroom that he wanted a ticket issued to Guardado’s wife to be dismissed and the matter kept strictly between Platt and the clerk.
Platt also admitted to having an ex parte conversation with a California Highway Patrol officer concerning a ticket issued to the minor son of a reserve deputy sheriff who occasionally served as a bailiff in Platt’s court; and to dismissing the ticket even though the case was not before him and would not normally have come to him.
The judge also acknowledged that he had contacted other San Joaquin judicial officers about three cases—a juvenile dependency matter, a traffic case, and a theft charge.
In the dependency case, Platt admitted telephoning Judge Lesley Holland to talk about a case involving the family of a former client, then entering a courtroom through a side door while the matter was being heard.
Platt denied that he was attempting to influence the outcome of the case, and the commission concluded that he “was not consciously attempting” to do so. But he violated the Code of Judicial Ethics by engaging in an ex parte communication with another judge, the commission ruled.
In the traffic case, in which Platt’s godfather was the defendant, Platt admitted that he contacted a court commissioner in the Tracy branch to ask about the handling of traffic cases, and to inform her that his godfather had a case.
The commission found that Platt did not know that the commissioner was the person handling his godfather’s case, and that he did not explicitly ask for favorable treatment. But it still found his actions improper.
Platt did not need to call a judicial officer to learn the court’s procedures, and did not need to tell the commissioner that his godfather was involved in a case, the commission said. The fact that he contacted a judicial officer ex parte and conveyed positive information about a defendant who might come before that judicial officer is sufficient to establish a willingness to abuse the powers of his office, the CJP concluded.
In the criminal case, the commission found that Platt attempted to use the prestige of his office to persuade another judge to release an acquaintance on her own recognizance.
The commission rejected Platt’s argument that because his actions were misguided attempts to help people that did not involve a quest for personal gain, a penalty short of removal was warranted.
The commission noted that Platt was privately disciplined in 1997 for selling candy and raffle tickets for charity from the courtroom and chambers, even after he was told by two other judges that this was wrong.
When he was admonished, the commission said, he promised to follow the ethics code in the future. Yet within a year, the CJP said, he was engaged in a pattern of misconduct that he should have recognized was wrong and should not have attempted to justify.
“The public understands ticket fixing and knows that its wrong,” the commission said. “The public need not tolerate a judge who dismisses multiple traffic tickets for friends and acquaintances and than says he saw nothing wrong with what he was doing when he did it.”
Platt has the right to petition the state Supreme Court to review the removal order, but is disqualified from sitting as a judge pending action by the high court.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company