Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals hasn’t had a lot to do for nearly two years, since he tangled with District Attorney Tony Rackauchas over the veracity of prosecutors and the use of informants in a death-penalty case. The judge kicked the D.A.’s entire office off the case in March.
The district attorney regularly asks that Goethals be disqualified from criminal cases, exercising a recognized right of preemptory challenge where the judge is thought to be prejudiced. The D.A. does not have to prove the allegation, just submit the request in “good faith” and in a timely fashion.
The judge was removed from 46 of 49 cases between February 2014 and September 2015 in a practice known as “papering the judge.”
O.C.’s Supervising Superior Court Judge Richard King is not fond of the practice and on December 3 rejected the request to disqualify Goethals from a murder case, People v. Tejeda, in a scathing 49-page ruling (pdf). Judge King pointed out that Goethals had been challenged in just one of 35 murder cases during a prior three-year span.
He said the “papering” of Goethals must end. The disqualifications have “caused murder cases and other felony cases to languish unnecessarily,” Judge King wrote. “It has caused a strain in misdemeanor operations. As a result, the court's responsibility to ensure the orderly administration of justice has been severely impacted.” Goethals has been reduced to handling mostly white-collar crime cases.
The challenges started as Goethals, a former prosecutor himself, convened hearings to probe the conduct of the D.A.’s office in the case of Scott Evans Dekraai, who killed his ex-wife and seven others in a hair salon in 2011. Dekraai’s attorney alleged prosecutors made illegal use of a secret jailhouse informant network.
After six months, the judge issued a report that sided with the defense. He called the government’s behavior “outrageous” and wrote:
“Many of the witnesses who testified during the course of this hearing were credibility challenged. These witnesses include current and former prosecutors, as well as current and former sworn peace officers. Some perhaps suffered from a failure of recollection. Other undoubtedly lied.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), legal organizations, nonpartisan watchdogs, and dozens of former prosecutors and legal scholars asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in a letter (pdf) last month, to have the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate the D.A.’s office and Orange County Sheriff’s Department about “the use of jailhouse informants and the concealment of informant-related evidence.”
The D.A. appealed the decision by King not to disqualify Goethals in Tejada to the California Fourth District Court of Appeal. In a statement, prosecutors denied they were targeting the judge: “The OCDA is not ‘blanket papering’ Judge Goethals. Even following his ruling recusing the OCDA on People v. Scott Dekraai, prosecutors have consistently litigated their cases in front of Judge Goethals, including a serious robbery case in his courtroom today.”