Report Claims California Watchdog for Judicial Ethical Violations is Too Lenient, Secretive

Tuesday, April 05, 2016
Commission director Victoria Henley (photo: LinkedIn)


By Bob Egelko, New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO -- California's judicial disciplinary agency is too lenient and too secretive, an advocacy group charged Monday in a report submitted to the Legislature.


The Commission on Judicial Performance, established in 1960 as the first agency in any state with the power to investigate judges for ethical violations, dismisses nearly 90 percent of the public complaints it receives and imposes discipline much less often than similar agencies in Arizona, Texas and New York, the report said. It was issued by Court Reform LLC, a nonprofit headed by Joseph Sweeney, an East Bay mathematician who said he was partly motivated by his encounters with family law courts.


``California has fallen behind its peers in judicial accountability'' and ``fails to protect the public from judicial misconduct,'' Sweeney's group told a state Assembly subcommittee that oversees the commission's $4.3 million budget.


The report did not identify any abusive or unethical judges who were allowed to stay on the bench. But the advocacy group said the commission's proceedings are virtually impossible to monitor because most of them -- complaints against judges, the judges' responses and the commission's decisions to dismiss complaints -- are sealed from the public.


The commission releases a summary of the complaint and the judge's reply only in the small fraction of cases that result in public disciplinary action, for the most serious misconduct.


In other disciplinary cases, when the commission finds the misbehavior to be relatively minor, it withholds the documents and issues a private reprimand.


The report called for an end to private disciplinary actions and for a state audit of the commission.


The commission -- three judges, two lawyers and six public members -- has the power to publicly reprimand a judge, issue a censure for more severe misconduct or remove a judge from office, an order that the judge can appeal to the state Supreme Court.


During the past decade, the report said, the commission has received an average of 1,082 complaints against judges each year and has taken public disciplinary action against 67 judges per year, with 34 judges per year leaving office after disciplinary complaints.


Based on the number of complaints received in other states, the report said, New York's agency was more than twice as likely to impose public discipline as the California commission, Texas' agency was nearly three times as likely, and Arizona's was four times as likely.


In response, Victoria Henley, the commission's director and chief counsel, said the report's statistics were ``extremely flawed.'' For example, she said, Sweeney's group counted informal advisories and warnings to judges as disciplinary actions in Arizona but not in California.


She said one likely reason New York and Texas discipline judges at a higher rate than California is that all judges in California are lawyers, but 40 percent of the judges in New York, and as many as 50 percent in Texas, are non-lawyers.


Henley also said private reprimands of judges serve important purposes -- educating the judge, deterring future misconduct and justifying increased punishment for further violations.


But Sweeney said California voters, who decide whether to elect or retain the 2,200 members of the nation's largest judicial system, are entitled to learn about accusations of wrongdoing and how they are handled.


``The public needs as much information as possible about potential misconduct,'' Sweeney said.


``The public should be able to sort out for itself whether a complaint is frivolous.''


To Learn More:

Why a Spotlight must be put on the Commission on Judicial Performance (Court Reform LLC)

Commission Issues Rare Public Scolding to Judge for Telling Attorney to “Work All Night” (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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