Rogues in Robes

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1211RoguesInRobes

You aren’t imagining it: Orange County has more than it’s share of misbehaving judges. To commemorate that, we offer a colorful history of injudicious jurisprudence.

For the most part, Orange County Superior Court judges—even the ones on these pages—are an admirable lot, overseeing proceedings and trials fairly, wisely, and with an unwavering sense of justice. They do their often-thankless job well off the public radar.

Usually.

But when you compare the disciplinary record of all of the county’s Superior Court judges with the records of judges elsewhere, a startling reality emerges: Orange County has the second-highest discipline rate for judicial misconduct in Southern California—everything from run-of-the-mill indiscretion to drunken driving to possession of child porn. (And four of those judges, none of whom are still in office, were repeat offenders.) Orange County’s rate is about twice those of neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego counties. In these parts, only Riverside County ranks higher.

The California Commission of Judicial Performance ordered Superior Court Judge Richard W. Stanford Jr. removed from office in January 2012 for handling traffic tickets for friends and relatives, making him the county’s 14th jurist to be disciplined since 1980.

Our local bench has a trove of colorful characters and amazing stories—from the jocular judge who was chastised for allowing a “circus atmosphere” in his courtroom, to the landlord judge who had his bailiff accept rent payments in court from his tenants.

The Job Description
Orange County currently has 116 Superior Court judges who handle every kind of case from divorce to murder. It has the third-largest bench in Southern California, after Los Angeles County’s 444 and San Diego County’s 130. Superior Court judges, who earn $172,000 a year, are elected to six-year terms and almost always are re-elected unopposed. Some judges served in municipal courts before those jurisdictions were folded into the Superior Court system in 1998.

Luis A. Cardenas
Judicial service 1976-1996
Accused of Favoritism
Date of discipline Oct. 3, 2000
Discipline Public admonishment

Cardenas was friends with two attorneys—Leonard Basinger and Basinger’s daughter, Ginger Larson Kelley. Between 1994 and 1996, when he retired, Cardenas improperly intervened on behalf of Basinger and Kelley to release suspects from custody, once while he was on vacation in Hawaii.

[Brought] the judicial office into disrepute by making himself available to Basinger and Kelley and granting their requests in such a way as to suggest that they were in a special position to influence him.

 

Pamela Iles
Judicial service 1983-2008
Accused of Ignoring defendant’s rights
Dates of discipline 1988, 1997, 2004, 2006, and 2007
Highest level of discipline Public admonishment (twice)

Described by The Orange County Registeras
“one of the more controversial judges ever to sit on the Orange County Superior Court bench,” Iles was disciplined five times during her career. She received her most severe discipline—public admonishment—for revoking a defendant’s probation and ordering him to jail for nearly a month without a hearing, and for approving an improper plea agreement.

Judge Iles is an experienced jurist.
No reasonable or reasonably competent judge would assume or conclude that he or she could summarily incarcerate an unrepresented defendant, in the manner Judge Iles did here, without implicating fundamental rights.

 

Ronald C. Kline
Judicial service 1995-2002
Accused of Possession of child pornography
Date of discipline June 15, 2006
Level of discipline Censured and barred from judicial office

Kline was a well-respected judge—that is, until November 2001 when law enforcement investigators executing a search warrant found more than 100 pornographic images of children on a computer and disks in his Irvine home. Police were tipped off by a Canadian hacker
who used a computer virus to access Kline’s hard drive. Kline was sentenced in 2007 to 27 months in prison after pleading guilty to four felony counts. The sentencing hearing was interrupted for half an hour after Kline collapsed into the arms of one of his attorneys and was treated by paramedics. While his sentencing was pending, he agreed to a punishment that bars him from ever serving as a judge again.

 

Kelly A. MacEachern
Judicial service 2003-08
Accused of Bogus expenses claim
Date of discipline June 26, 2008
Discipline Removed from judicial office

After traveling to San Diego for a judicial education seminar, MacEachern claimed reimbursement for two hotel nights—even though she had not attended classes on those days. When queried by the Superior Court’s travel coordinator, she falsely stated in an e-mail that she “sat in on” two classes. Testifying at a judicial inquiry, she blamed her choice of words on undiagnosed medical conditions, including “temporary dyslexia.” While in San Diego, MacEachern, her husband, and his twin daughters did manage to visit Sea World and the San Diego Zoo. She was the first Orange County judge to suffer the maximum penalty of removal from office.

Her misconduct involved sending an intentionally false and misleading e-mail to the court’s travel coordinator in an attempt to fraudulently obtain money from the court. When confronted with the patently misleading e-mail,
she contrived self-serving definitions and specious excuses.

 

Nancy A. Pollard
Judicial service 1997-present
Accused of Ethnic stereotyping
Date of discipline July 13, 2011
Discipline Public admonishment

At an April 2009 hearing in a domestic violence case, Pollard was less than politically correct in considering allegations that a man had thrown rocks at and spat on his girlfriend. “Usually that is the kind of behavior I see in Middle Eastern clients,” she said. If she “read a declaration where they say, ‘He spit on me. He threw rocks at me,’ almost always it’s a Middle Eastern client. If the declaration says, ‘He drags me around the house by the hair,’ it’s almost always a Hispanic client.”

Judge Pollard’s remarks articulated stereotypes about two ethnic groups and their propensity to engage in certain types of domestic violence.

 

James R. Ross
Judicial service 1983-1995
Accused of Willful misconduct
Date of discipline April 27, 1998
Discipline Censured and barred from judicial office

In various cases between 1992 and 1995,
Ross treated a lawyer “in an angry, discourteous, and impatient manner”; “dramatically slammed a tablet down on the bench, causing pencils to go flying, for the purpose of embarrassing an attorney”; used court staff to sell a book he had written to jurors and attorneys; made a sexually explicit joke in a child molestation case; and coerced litigants to waive their right to file a judicial misconduct complaint against him.

[Ross’] extraction of a waiver regarding the reporting of [his] activities to the Commission on Judicial Performance is inexcusable and impugns the very foundation of judicial integrity.

 

Gary P. Ryan
Judicial service 1979-2000
Accused of Driving under the influence
Date of discipline June 20, 2000
Discipline Public admonishment

While driving his SUV in Newport Beach in September 1999, Ryan rear-ended an even larger SUV, damaging both vehicles. Tests showed his blood alcohol level was 0.17—more than twice the legal limit. After pleading guilty to two misdemeanor DUI offenses, he was put on three years’ probation.

 

Calvin P. Schmidt
Judicial service 1966-1991 (died in office)
Accused of Favoritism
Date of discipline Nov. 29. 1989
Discipline Public reproval

Schmidt, who served a record 25 years as a municipal court judge in Newport Beach (before the municipal courts were consolidated with the Superior Courts), twice ordered the release from custody of the stepdaughter of a friend. Another judge had previously denied the defendant’s release on her own recognizance; before Schmidt’s second release order, she had failed to appear in court and been arrested on new charges not specified in the commission ruling.

The obvious and sole reason for Schmidt’s actions was his friendship
with [the defendant’s] stepfather.


Richard W. Stanford Jr.
Judicial service 1985-2012
Accused of Favoritism
Discipline Removed from judicial office

Stanford allegedly intervened to help relatives and friends—his son-in-law, his pastor, his court clerk, and a contractor who remodeled his home—accused of traffic infractions. In several cases, Stanford waived all fines and fees after the accused pleaded guilty. A panel of judges that heard the evidence lauded him as a fine jurist, but wrote: “The massive blind spot he exhibited is a stark reminder that we each hold in our hands, every day, the power to preserve or tarnish the integrity of the judicial branch.”

 

John M. Watson
Judicial service 1989-2009
Accused of Misuse of court employees, rudeness
Dates of discipline 2006 and 2008
Discipline Public admonishment (twice)

Watson first got into trouble for using court staff to help manage his rental property business, even having his bailiff accept rent payments in the courtroom and take calls from tenants. He also was disciplined for failing to be “patient, dignified, and courteous with the parties and lawyers” in a dispute between neighbors. He repeatedly expressed exasperation that he had to hear the case, saying at one point, “I think it is a waste of time. These are the kind of lawsuits that make people mad when they get on jury service. Dumb cases in court.”

He is maybe praying for your salvation.—Watson to a lawyer who said the next witness might be a priest 


Claude E. Whitney
Judicial service 1989-2001
Accused of Ignoring defendants’ rights
Date of discipline Oct. 3, 1996
Discipline Public censure

The state began investigating Whitney in 1993 after the Orange County public defender’s office filed a 325-page complaint alleging he had routinely denied constitutional rights to misdemeanor defendants. It was the first complaint the office had filed against a judge in nearly 30 years. The state concluded he routinely “failed to exercise his judicial discretion to consider releasing defendants on their own” recognizance and refused to appoint lawyers to assist indigent defendants at arraignments.

 

Bobby D. Youngblood
Judicial service 1981-1987
Accused of Conflict of interest
Date of discipline May 5, 1983
Discipline Public censure

While presiding in a small-claims case against PacTel, Youngblood—once described by theLos Angeles Times as a “flamboyant judge with a penchant for cowboy boots”—contacted employees of the telephone company and threatened that “someone was going to jail”
if the plaintiff’s service was interrupted. He also altered the judgment he had previously handed down in the case. At the time, he and his wife were engaged in litigation with PacTel, creating at least the appearance of bias.

 

The Court Jester
James M. Brooks
Judicial service 1987-2008
Accused of Sarcasm, excessive jocularity
Dates of discipline Nov. 29, 2006, and April 8, 2008
Discipline Public admonishment (twice)

Trials are generally such somber affairs that the occasional flash of humor comes as welcome relief. At a trial in 2005, though, Brooks took the jocularity so far that it prompted an appeals court to order a new trial—and eventually cost him his job. “A courtroom is not the Improv, and the presider’s role model is not Judge Judy,” the appeals court memorably declared.

The case was that of two men suing Ricoh Electronics for employment bias. At one point, in overruling an objection, Brooks held up a hand-lettered sign saying “Overruled.” The next day, the defense lawyer presented him with another sign saying the same thing. “Better than my homemade one,” Brooks observed. Later in the trial, the plaintiffs’ attorney objected to Brooks’ use of the defense lawyer’s sign, to which the judge responded, “It’s lightening things up.”

The defense lawyer and Brooks also bantered with each other after the attorney began singing “The Twilight Zone” theme while questioning one of the plaintiffs. “That was terrible,” Brooks said of the singing. He then ruled that the lawyer was not mocking the plaintiff.

The state commission said Brooks’ use of the “Overruled” sign “belittled plaintiffs’ objections,” and said Brooks had given the lawyer “free rein to deride and make snide remarks at will and at the expense of the plaintiff.”

Brooks had four previous disciplinary actions on his record, including one for saying that if a member of his family were assaulted, “I would go down and punch the defendant’s lights out.” He agreed in 2008 to retire and not seek assignments as a private judge.

“Gee, I wonder what’s going to happen when we put you in jail, Mr. McMahon. Your little ticker might stop, you think?”—Judge Brooks in 2006, to a man who had missed a deposition because of heart problems

 

The Straight Talker
Susanne S. Shaw
Judicial service 1985-2006
Accused of Demeaning defendants
Dates of discipline June 26, 2000, and Dec. 21, 2006
Highest level of discipline Censured and barred from judicial office

Shaw had many admirers during her 21 years on the bench, but she was undone with the disciplinary commission because of her occasional flippancy.

In 2000, she was admonished for courtroom comments she made between 1993 and 1997. The “most troubling” of the complaints against her, the commission said, was that, while ordering a defendant into custody, she asked him if he knew “what they do to skinny little white boys in jail.” Shaw denied making the comment, but the defendant’s testimony was corroborated by witnesses.

The commission noted that Shaw was “widely respected” and was described by supporters as “frank, a straight-talker, forthright, honest to a fault, and tough but fair.” But it said there was “no better example of the harm from being flip than Judge Shaw’s comment concerning thin white males in jail” and recommended that she take steps “to control her admitted weakness for blurting out something that would have been better left unsaid.”

Six years later, Shaw again was under fire for her handling of five criminal cases, charged with scolding, and belittling attorneys, litigants, witnesses, and a prospective juror. When a lawyer said she could not reschedule a doctor’s appointment, Shaw responded: “I hear this all day long. … You guys aren’t a bunch of babies.”

She also was unsympathetic toward a woman who tried to dodge jury duty because she had a college report due. “Well, that’s nice,” Shaw said. “I’ve got lots of things to do, too.”

Shaw had retired by the time the commission censured her in December 2006, but she was still barred from receiving any work as a retired judge, with the commission saying she had “obviously failed to heed the warning” from her previous disciplinary case.

Shaw: What part of my rulings don’t you respect?  Defense lawyer: … I’m just looking for impeachment.  Shaw: Isn’t that nice? But you know what? You know, I make rulings. You are to abide by them. You got it?

 

How Common Is the Problem?
In 2010, a fairly typical year, the Commission on Judicial Performance considered 1,176 complaints about active and former judges. Of those, 87 percent were not pursued, largely because they involved only allegations of legal error. Only 46 complaints, or 4 percent, resulted in discipline.

The Role Model?
In her book “The Bench and the Bar: A Centennial View of Orange County’s Legal History,” author Pamela Hallan-Gibson describes one of the area’s first district judges—Benjamin Hayes, who served between 1853 and 1864—thus: “It is said that he carried a bowie knife and a double-barreled shotgun at all times, and, except for occasional intoxication, was able to keep himself well and fit” during that relatively lawless era.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Orange Coast and was updated in July 2012 for the magazine’s website.

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