March 13, 1996
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Owes Public Apology to District Attorney
Three weeks before the primary election in which District Attorney Gil Garcetti faces five challengers, a Los Angeles Superior Court spouted off from the bench about the county’s prosecutor, asserting that he is either a “craven coward” or an “arrogant bureaucrat.”
In uttering those remarks close to the climax of an election, Yaffe was or should have been cognizant of the likelihood that those rematks would receive public attention. Indeed, they did. They were published last Friday in the Los Angeles Times under a headline running the full width of a page reading, “Judge Assails Garcetti for Treating Drug Charge as ‘3rd Strike’ Case.”
As the Times reported, Yaffe lambasted the district attorney for “gross abuse of prosecutorial discretion” in failing to strike priors in the case of a man tried for possessing three-tenths of a gram of cocaine. The man was acquitted. Yaffe’s diatribe took place in the course of discharging jurors.
What the Times failed to report was that Yaffe specified that he did not intend an endorsement of any candidate and that he had “no information and no reason to believe that anybody trying to take the present district attorney’s job would do this any differently or better than [Garcetti] would.”
He added: “But this situation demands a public statement by this court, and that’s why I am making it.”
Notwithstanding his disclaimer, Yaffe knowingly involved himself in a political race. As his statement reflects, he knew there was an upcoming election in which Garcetti faced opposition. His remarks about Garcetti were harsh, it is rare that a judge would utter such words about a political figure, and it was reasonably foreseeable they would be quoted and would be damaging to Garcetti.
It cannot be doubted that Yaffe intended to damage a man he asserted was either a “craven coward who is afraid to do his sworn duty” by striking priors because he is “afraid of public reaction” or an “arrogant bureaucrat” who is trying to thwart the public will by making the three-strikes law look bad. The judge intended to do that damage three weeks before an election.
Viewed oin context, Yaffe’s remarks to jurors were thus nothing other than a political speech relating to a non-judicial race, and as such, were in blatant derogation of Canon 5 of the Code of Judicial Ethics.
If Yaffe believes the canon unduly restricts his speech, he should forthrightly challenge it — not try to sneak around it by uttering his political comments from the bench rather than a bunting-draped lecturn.
On March 4, Yaffe proclaimed: “This situation demands a public statement by this court.” The situation — Yaffe’s perception that the Office of District Attorney was remiss in not striking priors — did not call for any personal attack on the head of that office. It did not call for turning a courtroom into a political meeting hall. At that time, a public statement by the court was certainly not demanded.
The situation now does demand a public statement. It demands a public apology to Garcetti and an explanation of the conduct to any reporters who inquire. Ironically, Yaffe, who spoke when he should not have, now is mum. He met with Garcetti Friday but has issued no apology. He refuses to take calls from reporters, revealing himself to be — to employ his redundant phrase — “a craven coward.”
An apology is all the more called for in light of Yaffe having uttered his denunciation based on misapprehensions of fact. He was ignorant of the defendant’s prior felonies other than the two alleged and his four parole violations.
Yaffe owes it to Garcetti to make amends. He owes it to the public to talk with its “surrogates,” members of the press. And he would do a favor for himself by ameliorating the harm and thus possibly minimizing discipline from the Commission on Judicial Performance.
Copyright 1996, Metropolitan News Company