Small town judges more likely to be disciplined

July 5, 2012

California judges who work in smaller communities, are elected or who have been previously disciplined were more likely to be sanctioned for misconduct during the past two decades, according to figures from the California Commission on Judicial Performance. [CaliforniaWatch]

California imposed 878 disciplinary actions against trial court judges from 1990 through 2011, the bulk of which resulted in advisory letters and private admonishments. These types of disciplines taken by the commission are confidential, according to the commission.

Sanctions against judges can lead to removal from the bench, a disciplinary action that has not been taken during the last three reported years. More often judges choose to retire from the bench, without public exposure, while discipline procedures are pending.

Over the past five years, the most common violations involved judges who failed to disqualify themselves from cases to avoid conflicts of interest, denied someone’s constitutional rights or lacked decorum in and out of the courtroom.

Examples include a judge who sent a letter on judicial stationary to a local business complaining about the firing of an employee and saying that the court and the judge would no longer use the business.

Another judge was disciplined for being inconsistent in making disclosures and in disqualification in cases involving the judge’s former law partner who was a close friend. The same judge also made inappropriate remarks with sexual overtones to court staff.

On the date a criminal case was set for trial, after relieving a defendant’s attorney, another judge unjustly remanded the defendant for failing to obey his order to be quiet. Before new counsel appeared, the judge increased the defendant’s bail significantly, which gave the appearance that the judge was acting out of pique and trying to coerce a guilty plea from the defendant.

If a judge has been attending ethics training every three years, the costs of their legal defense is covered by an insurance plan underwritten by taxpayers.

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In my not-so-humble-opinion, local judges remain a very integral part of a small community and consequently are more susceptible to local influences: friends, associates, friends of their children, local organizations and — of course — powerful local players (individuals as well as institutions).

It is not surprising that local judges would be indirectly or directly influenced locally. This close personal influence may blind them to the reality of the law until someone overturns their rulings from the outside. Local judges are human and it takes a uniquely strong person to go against powerful friends and entities.

I really don’t know the solution to this… but if you have an issue that can be tried outside of your area… say in federal court for example… then you may not get justice… but the ruling will be fairer.