Thursday, September 11, 2003
Bid to Hold County Liable for Trammell Misconduct Won’t Be Heard
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Court of Appeal ruling that Los Angeles County bears no liability to a former defendant who claimed that she was coerced into having repeated sex with then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George W. Trammell III was left standing yesterday by the California Supreme Court.
No justice voted to review the June 26 ruling of this district’s Div. One in Lo v. County of Los Angeles. Justice Reuben Ortega’s opinion for the court was unpublished.
The action, taken at the court’s weekly conference, appears to put an end to the litigation by Pifen Lo and her family arising out of the scandal that cost Trammell his job, his pension, and two years of his freedom after 26 years on the bench.
While Lo’s claims against the former jurist are still pending, her attorneys have previously said they would not pursue Trammell personally because he appeared to have “judgment-proofed” himself by moving to the “debtor’s paradise” of Florida after leaving the bench.
The plaintiffs, after three appellate decisions and a jury trial, have not prevailed against any defendant. They sued the state—which won a defense verdict at trial—and the judge’s clerk and bailiff, as well as the county and Trammell.
Div. One upheld the county’s position that Trammell was not its employee, agent, or servant. Orange Superior Court Judge David Brickner, who heard the case on assignment, also ruled that the county could not be held liable for negligent supervision, because judges cannot be “supervised” as a matter of law, but the Court of Appeal said there was no need to address that issue.
Trammell quit the bench abruptly in 1997, following disclosure of his involvement with Lo, a defendant in a case before him. Lo was placed on five years probation after pleading guilty to lesser charges in a case where her husband and a babysitter were charged with kidnapping.
Lo claimed she was coerced into sex with the judge. Trammell told her she had to “pay the price” if she wanted favorable treatment for her husband as the case continued after her plea, she said.
An Orange Superior Court judge ruled that Trammel’s actions had tainted the case against Lo’s husband and babysitter. Their convictions were thrown out on a writ of habeas corpus, and they were allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges.
The Commission on Judicial Performance found there was insufficient evidence Lo was coerced, but ruled that Trammell’s continued ex parte contacts with Lo violated judicial ethics. Trammell was censured and barred from performing court-appointed work.
He later admitted to related mail fraud charges in federal court and was sentenced to 27 months in prison, which he served at a facility in Beaumont, Texas.
His years on the bench—he served on the Los Angeles Municipal Court from 1971 to 1988 and on the Superior Court from 1988 to 1997—would normally entitle him to a pension, which would now be about $100,000 annually, but state law bars a judge who is convicted of a felony related to judicial service from receiving retirement benefits.
In the case against the county, Lo’s attorneys agreed that under trial court unification, judges are exclusively state employees. But they argued that at the time of Trammell’s involvement with Lo, the county was a co-employer because it shared financial responsibility for the courts, conducted judicial elections, and was responsible for enacting ordinances governing some aspects of court operations.
Ortega said the state was, at all relevant times, the primary employer of its judges. For another unit of government to be a co-employer of a state worker, Ortega explained, it must have control over the person’s official conduct.
The state surrendered no control over judges to the county, the justice said.
In other actions at yesterday’s conference, the justices:
•Agreed to decide whether the state’s “lemon law,” requiring a manufacturer to replace goods or reimburse the buyer whenever the manufacturer fails to repair the goods to conform to an express warranty, applies when the manufacturer does business in California but the goods in question were sold in another state. The Fourth District Court of Appeal, Div. Two, held in Cummins, Inc. v. Superior Court (Cox), 109 Cal.App.4th 1385, that the law applies in that circumstance.
•Let stand a Court of Appeal ruling that makes the 1998 Libertarian Party candidate for governor a convicted felon.
A Placer Superior Court judge had reduced Steven Kubby’s convictions for possession of mescaline and psilocyn to misdemeanors and sentenced him to 120 days in jail. But the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that possession of mescaline is a felony, not a wobbler, and that Kubby must be resentenced accordingly.
Kubby, a medical-marijuana advocate now living in Canada, had cross-appealed the misdemeanor convictions, but the Court of Appeal ruled last year that he is a fugitive and cannot appeal, although he was permitted to defend against the state’s appeal.
In denying his petition to review the latest ruling, the Supreme Court cited last year’s ruling as well as an 1880 decision explaining the fugitive disentitlement doctrine. The justices thus implicitly rejected Kubby’s argument that seeking review of the ruling on the prosecution’s appeal was purely a defensive measure and not a bid for affirmative relief.
•Unanimously denied review of a Third District Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the largest fine ever imposed by the Fair Political Practices Commission for violations of the Political Reform Act. The $808,000 fine against Californians Against Corruption and its treasurers, Carl Russell “Russ” Howard and Steven Cicero, has grown to more than $1.1 million with interest.
The appellate panel held that the conservative activists—Howard is a member of the National Rifle Association’s board—waited too long to challenge the administrative action taken as a result of more than 400 alleged violations in the reporting of contributions to the unsuccessful 1994 effort to recall then-state Sen. David Roberti, D-Los Angeles.
•Agreed to decide whether Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Peven erred in terminating a defendant’s right to self-representation as a sanction for having misused discovery to obtain certain documents, including rap sheets and DMV records for prosecution witnesses. The Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Earl Johnson Jr. for this district’s Div. Seven, ordered a new trial. The case is People v. Carson, 109 Cal.App.4th 978.
•Agreed to decide whether Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Hollingsworth Jr. committed prejudicial error in a gang-related robbery case by denying a defense request to bifurcate trial on the criminal street gang enhancement from trial on the substantive offenses and/or by failing to give the jury a limiting instruction on the permissible uses of evidence of gang affiliation.
The Court of Appeal’s Div. Three, in People v. Hernandez, 109 Cal.App.4th 1338, held that the denial of bifurcation was erroneous but not prejudicial, and that the judge’s inadvertent failure to give the limiting instruction after agreeing to do so was also harmless.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company