Thursday, June 4, 1998
Commission on Judicial Performance Performs a Disservice
The Commission on Judicial Performance has instituted formal disciplinary proceedings against Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Nancy Brown. We believe a censure is warranted—a censure, that is, of that most erratic commission.
All who favor fair play should join in a denunciation of the commission's action against Brown. Brown has served as a judicial officer for 29 years, first as a municipal court commissioner, then as a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, and, since 1984, as a judge of the Superior Court. Learned in criminal law, she regularly teaches that subject at the Judges College. She is a fair-minded, skilled, and dutiful jurist. And yet, she is under attack. Why?
COUNT ONE: She banned Los Angeles County Criminal Court Coordinator John Iverson from her courtroom. According to the "notice of formal proceedings": "The ban has interfered with Mr. Iverson's ability to obtain information about the status of your cases, your availability and the availability of your courtroom, and therefore has made case assignment by the supervising judges of the Los Angeles County criminal courts more difficult and has interfered with the efficient administration of court business." This is nonsense. It implies that the criminal court coordinator can only obtain information on availability of courtrooms and judges by personally going from courtroom to courtroom to be briefed. While that may be Iverson's approach, that approach is anachronistic; it ignores the availability of communication via telephone and computer. This charge does not even rise to the level of being tenuous. It cannot seriously be contended that a judge who ostracizes a particular court administrator whom the judge regards as having demonstrated duplicity thereby sabotages court operations. This is quite far from being the proper subject of disciplinary proceedings.
COUNT TWO: The judge agreed to perform a marriage ceremony during a noon recess. The groom was in custody, and she ordered that he and his brother, also in custody, be transported from the jail to her courtroom. The criminal courts supervising judge, John Reid, rescinded her order. In public session, she criticized Reid's action. So long as a judge does not charge a fee for conducting a marriage ceremony during the week, doing so is a judicial prerogative. For one judge to purport to rescind an order of another judge of the same court is not a prerogative. It is plainly an unauthorized act of arrogance. For Brown to have voiced public criticisms was unusual, but so was Reid's conduct. Her remarks were clearly privileged. The First Amendment does extend to judges.
COUNT THREE: She had a plastic marijuana plant in the courtroom or in chambers. This, the commission said in its notice to Brown, "was inconsistent with your judicial obligation to maintain appropriate decorum and gave the appearance that you might not be fair and impartial in, or might not take seriously, matters that involved the subject of drugs." That conclusion is hardly warranted by the facts. The commission has portrayed as dire something that's innocuous. Brown's fairness in drug cases is attested to by the extreme infrequency of affidavits of prejudice filed against her in those cases. (She is quite rarely the target of "papering" in any type of case—the total number of affidavits in her long career reportedly amounting to less than a dozen.)
COUNT FOUR: At least until last April, Brown regularly smoked in chambers. This is the only tenable count among the quartette of accusations. If, however, the conduct ceased in April, there is hardly a need for public airing of the matter. The commission has shrugged its shoulders over such incidents as a judge committing perjury and another judge engaging in an improper ex parte communication with a juror which affected the outcome of a proceeding. That misconduct resulted in no action by the commission, while a veteran judge puffing on a cigarette in the confines of her chambers is treated as a major affront.
The commission is differently constituted than it had been, and has new rules. One attribute of the commission remains constant: Inconsistency.
Sometimes it grossly under-reacts; sometimes it grossly over-reacts. In this instance, it is harassing an able jurist over inconsequentia.
To our way of thinking, the institution of formal proceedings against Judge Nancy Brown is unwarranted and reprehensible.
Copyright 1998, Metropolitan News Company