Friday, August 16, 2002
Ripston, in Rare Move, Explains Lone Vote Against Judge’s Removal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Michael E. Platt, ordered removed from office last week by the Commission on Judicial Performance, is a good judge who deserves to be censured but not removed for ethical lapses, the lone CJP member to vote against his removal said yesterday.
In a rare, perhaps unprecedented, dissenting opinion, Ramona Ripston said the commission should have given greater weight to the mitigating factors cited by three special masters who heard the evidence against Platt earlier this year. Platt, she said, was highly respected as a judge and former prosecutor but helped some friends, not for personal gain, but because he had a “rescuer” mentality.
Censure, she argued, would be a sufficient punishment.
“[I]t is not necessary to ruin the life of a dedicated jurist and public servant, as well as those of his wife and young children, in order for this Commission to perform its function properly,” Ripston wrote.
Ripston, the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California and a public member of the commission since 1998—she was appointed by then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaragoisa—issued her dissent one week after the state’s judicial watchdog voted 9-1 to remove Platt from the bench for ticket fixing and using improper influence.
The commission filed its decision without awaiting her dissent, she explained, as a result of an “inadvertent error.” But Ripston, who is married to Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, said dissents play an important part in the process and bemoaned the fact that her fellow commissioners did not have the opportunity to consider her written views before the formal decision was filed.
“Sometimes when fair and open-minded individuals have a chance to read what dissenters have written, dissents turn into majority opinions,” Ripston wrote. “It even happens in the United States Supreme Court on occasion. Surely we should allow for the operation of such a process on this Commission.”
Under the commission’s procedures, formal charges are considered in an evidentiary hearing before three special masters who submit findings to the commission. The full 11-member body—there is currently one vacancy—then meets to hear final arguments by lawyers representing the commission and the accused judge, and then deliberates.
A final decision is then filed, signed by the commission chair.
Prior to 1999, the decision only reported the vote, along with a brief statement of what action the dissenters would have taken, without identifying how individual commissioners voted.
Since then, in accordance with a First District Court of Appeal decision, the commission has disclosed how each commission member voted, but Ripston is the first in that time to file a separate statement explaining her vote.
The commission said in last week’s decision that 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.
Platt admitted that he ordered dismissal of four traffic tickets, one of which was issued to a bailiff’s son and the others to a friend, the friend’s wife, and the friend’s niece.
The friend, identified by name in the commission’s notice of formal charges and in news reports but not in the decision or the dissent, is Eddie Guardado—a Minnesota Twins relief pitcher 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.
The commission also said Platt had improper contacts with other judges about cases involving friends.
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. It 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.
But Ripston said the commission gave undue weight to the prior discipline and paid too little attention to the testimony of San Joaquin County officials and fellow judicial officers. She cited testimony that Platt was a good-hearted person whose devotion to others was largely shaped by his experiences in combat during the Vietnam War.
“I would,” Ripston said, “take into account…the fact that he demonstrated his courage when he volunteered to serve his country in Vietnam at a time when many others sought ways to avoid the dangers involved, and that he was wounded in battle as a result.”
The special masters, she noted, found that Platt had expressed remorse and “repeatedly and openly apologized to members of his community” for his actions, and had done so from the time he was informed of the commission’s investigation.
Also relevant, Ripston said, was his 15 years of public service, the high esteem in which he was held by the local legal community, and the fact that the incidents leading to his removal came shortly after he suffered a near-fatal heart attack.
Platt has the right to petition the state Supreme Court for review of the removal order, but cannot perform judicial duties pending the court’s ruling. If removed, he would be barred from practicing law without the high court’s consent.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company