Thursday, September 11, 2003
Order Removing ‘Condescending,’ ‘Sarcastic’ Jurist From Bay Area Court Left Standing by Justices
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously declined to review a Commission on Judicial Performance order removing Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis from office.
Van Voorhis, 54, has been barred from serving since Feb. 27, when the CJP released its 8-2 decision terminating his 16-year judicial career. The commission said it would not tolerate the judge continuing to insult lawyers, staff members and jurors in open court.
As a removed judge, Van Voorhis cannot receive any type of court assignment, cannot run for judicial office, and cannot return to the practice of law without the approval of the state high court.
Van Voorhis’ attorney, James A. Murphy of San Francisco, said the judge’s due process rights had been violated and that a petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court was under consideration.
“We are obviously dismayed by the decision of the Supreme Court not to accept the matter for review given the strength of...the constitutional arguments,” Murphy told the MetNews.
The high court’s failure to rule on the merits violates the judge’s rights to due process, Murphy said, as does the commission’s failure to follow a now-repealed rule—which was in effect at the time the special masters heard the case—precluding removal of a judge unless at least six commission members were present at the evidentiary hearing.
While the nation’s highest court could stay his removal pending a ruling on whether it will hear the case, Van Voorhis “is very close to being an ex-judge,” Murphy acknowledged.
The attorney added that he did not know whether Van Voorhis would seek to reenter law practice if he fails to regain his judgeship.
Van Voorhis, a former Alameda County prosecutor, spent most of his career hearing misdemeanors, first as a municipal court judge and then in the Walnut Creek branch of the unified Superior Court. He also occasionally sat at the county seat in Martinez, but a former presiding judge of the court said his utility was limited because each stint he did there created the need for a new round of “problem-solving.”
He was apparently the first judge in Contra Costa history to have blanket affidavits of prejudice filed against him by the district attorney. Prosecutors called him a “judicial bully” who targeted young female prosecutors for abuse because he thought they would not stand up to him.
The CJP described his conduct as, among other things, “condescending, disrespectful and contemptuous” and as “undignified, discourteous, and sarcastic.”
The judge 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.
The commission noted that he drew discipline in 1992 and 1994 for similar offenses, and that he was warned by his presiding judge in 1999 that he needed to take anger management classes. Despite those admonitions, the commission said, the judge had not taken any steps to deal with what the special masters called his “serious problem with judicial temperament and self-control.”
Third District Court of Appeal Justice Vance Raye and public member of the commission Ramona Ripston dissented from the removal order, arguing that censure was a sufficient punishment.
Raye acknowledged that Van Voorhis “is not a warm and fuzzy individual,” but said that removal should generally be limited to cases of corruption. A judge or potential judge’s “lack of congeniality” is a matter to be considered by the governor who is considering an appointment, or by the voters, rather than by the commission, Raye argued.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company