Monday, July 30, 2001
Legal Watchdog Planning Suits Against Superior Court
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Self-proclaimed ethical and legal watchdog Judicial Watch will file three lawsuits in the next three weeks against the Los Angeles Superior Court, including one alleging improper restrictions on access to public court files, Chairman and General Counsel Larry Klayman said Friday.
Judicial Watch Western Regional Headquarters Director Sterling “Ernie” Norris says the court has denied him access to computerized court files that would allow the group to assess the performance of individual judges.
With proper access to the records, Judicial Watch “can accomplish a lot,” Norris said.
What Norris, a retired county prosecutor, and Klayman, a former Department of Justice lawyer, say they hope to accomplish is getting rid of the “traditional historical problem of no accountability” a position which they say judges enjoy.
“There’s an attitude that, ‘I’m the king and this is my court,’” Norris said. “They think they are above the law.”
Court officials say computerized records of the type that Judicial Watch is seeking do not exist.
Founded in 1994 by Klayman, Judicial Watch is best known for its high-profile attacks on the Clinton Administration. The group took on the Executive Office of the President on behalf of Gennifer Flowers to obtain documents, and served in a similar role on behalf of Paula Jones.
But the group has also gone after Republican New York Mayor Rudoph Giuliani, demanding access to documents on his fund raising for last year’s aborted U.S. Senate race.
The group says it is involved in more that 40 cases against government and high-ranking officials for misconduct and public trust violations.
Norris said the court is hurting itself by restricting access to public files, especially since Judicial Watch would be happy to compliment good judges.
But problems accessing files are nothing new to his organization, he said.
The court denied his office access to two years of computerized court custody and visitation records by now-retired Judge Arnold Gold during a recent investigation by the group into Gold’s official actions, Norris said.
Judicial Watch plans to release a investigative report on Gold in the coming weeks without obtaining those records, he said.
In a Nov. 1, 2000 letter to Norris, then-Presiding Judge Victor Chavez said family law records “are not programmed to generate lists of cases involving child custody or visitation handled by a particular judge.”
Chavez added that it “would be necessary to review each individual file,” but that the files are open for public inspection.
“They [Judicial Watch] are asking for something the way they want it which is something we don’t even have,” court spokesperson Kyle Christopherson said.
Norris said Judicial Watch also plans to file a suit against the court to force the reinstatement of the grand jury’s Criminal Complaint Committee.
Norris asserts that the committee was been existence since the creation of the Los Angeles County grand jury in the 19th century but was phased out last June with the creation of a double grand jury system, one for criminal matters and one for civil. He said the committee functioned as a forum for the public to give statements to grand jurors on what they think the panel should be investigating.
Every grand jury in California has a Criminal Complaint Committee, Norris said, adding that members of Judicial Watch spoke to the Sacramento Grand Jury’s committee regarding the indictment of Sara Jane Olson.
Christopherson said a Criminal Complaint Committee has never existed for the Los Angeles Grand Jury.
Judicial Watch will also be alleging judicial “double dipping” at the expense of taxpayers.
The suit filed against the court will challenge the nearly $30,000 in county taxpayer money Judicial Watch says Los Angeles Superior Court judges are receiving on top of their $133,051 salaries.
Judges receive a benefits package and a “professional development allowance” in addition to their regular salaries.
Under the benefits formula, a recipient is given nearly 20 percent of gross salary. Part of that goes to pay for health, dental and life insurance and other benefits. The rest is received in cash.
The benefits package adds a little over $25,000 to a judge’s salary in addition to the PDA which adds another $5,800 each year.
The benefits are paid from the county’s coffers, even though judges’ pay comes from the state.
No other county in the state has a similar program, although some counties do offer their judges some compensation to cover their expenses as a result of doing judicial business, Norris said.
The three lawsuits, which will be filed when Klayman makes a trip to Los Angeles in August, are probably not going to be the last filed against the court, Norris said, as Judicial Watch’s San Marino office has its sights set on Los Angeles-area judges.
The San Marino office fields thousands of calls a month with complaints about area and state judges, he said.
The organization also sends unmarked court monitors into county courtrooms to observe judges.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis welcomed Judicial Watch into her courtroom.
“These are public courtrooms and anyone is welcome,” Duffy-Lewis said. “I welcome anyone to come into my courtroom and observe justice being done.”
In addition to Norris, Judicial Watch’s San Marino office employs two attorneys along with a secretary, whose full-time salaries are all paid for by the organization out of donations it receives from supporters.
With demand for their services so high, Judicial Watch is looking to expand with satellite offices in Northern California and San Diego before the end of the year, Klayman said.
Along with its San Marino location, Judicial Watch currently has offices in Dallas, Miami with its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company