California Auditor: Improve oversight of judge misconduct
Panel expected to submit proposals to increase public control of judicial discipline
A state legislative committee earlier this month issued several proposals, including an amendment to the state Constitution, that would make investigations of alleged judicial misconduct more fair to judges and, at the same time, increase public awareness of a commission that hears complaints about judges and disciplines them, The Reporter has learned.
During a mid-June meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Sacramento, the state auditor, Elaine M. Howle, made several recommendations to the panel, made up of state senators and Assembly members and others, to improve state oversight of judicial misconduct:
- Improve the quality of investigations by boosting the Commission on Judicial Performance’s budget by $419,000, allowing for the hiring of an investigations manager and improving the CJP’s ability to analyze complaints for trends. “Weaknesses in CJP’s investigation process could allow judicial misconduct to continue,” Howle noted.
- Amend the California Constitution to ensure the CJP’s process is fair to judges, increase public control of judicial discipline, and, at the same time, reconfigure the commission from a single unit of detectives to a “bicameral” structure, or two units, to make sure disciplinary decisions are made fairly.
- Require courts to publicly post information about the CJP. “There are no requirements that courthouses post information about the CJP,” Howle pointed out and added, “Thus, people who witness judicial misconduct” — a harsh and angry tone and demeanor, excessive arrogance, lack of impartiality, incompetence, sexually harassing conduct, among other examples — “may be unaware of CJP’s ability to discipline judges.”
Jaclyn Qirreh of Vacaville, an advocate of the Protective Mothers of Solano County, attended the committee meeting in the state Capitol and said local attorneys have long contended the CJP “isn’t doing enough about complaints” about judge misconduct.
In a text sent to The Reporter, she called the joint committee’s meeting with Howle “a historic moment” that affirmed local lawyers’ sentiments.
Qirreh also noted that the president of the California Judges Association, Paul Bacigalupo, described those filing complaints, many of them in connection to Family Court cases, as “traumatized litigants.”
“Which is certainly what we’ve seen locally,” she added. “The entire judiciary is tainted when the few bad actors are not held accountable; we have definitely felt the repercussions of that here in Solano County.”
MURDER ROOTED IN JUDGE’S FAILURE?
Qirreh and other Solano victims’ advocates have, over the years, cited several county court cases, including one filed against Everett Highbaugh. He was charged with the Nov. 23, 2016, shooting death of Kenesha Jackson, 36, the mother of his children, in Vallejo. Highbaugh was acquitted of the allegations earlier this year after a jury trial, during which, as the defense attorney argued, the prosecution’s case was largely based on circumstantial evidence and contended the crime may have been committed by someone else.
Be that as it may, Jackson’s murder occurred exactly two months after a Solano County Family Court judge, Garry Ichikawa, denied Jackson’s request for a permanent restraining order against Highbaugh. The judge had noted that while Jackson had been the victim of domestic violence, she did not face an imminent threat of death and, therefore, did not grant the order.
After Jackson’s death, Ichikawa faced the possibility of a recall mounted by outraged victims’ advocates, but he resigned his judge’s post before it began.
In such cases, victims advocates contend, the killings come with clear warning signs while law enforcement and the courts fail to stop what victims often see as inevitable.
The protests against Ichikawa preceded a December 2018 Washington Post analysis of nearly 4,500 slayings of women in 47 major U.S. cities during the past decade that found that almost half of the murdered women — 46 percent — died at the hands of an intimate partner. In many cases, they were among the most brutal killings and the most telegraphed.
Additionally, according to The Post’s analysis of homicides in five of the cities, one-third of all men who killed a current or former intimate partner were publicly known to be a potential threat to their loved one ahead of the attack, facts Qirreh and others often cite, contending that some judges do not take the victims’ concerns seriously, an attitude they equate with misconduct.
The executive director of California Protective Parents, Catherine Campbell of Davis, also attended the joint committee meeting, saying her group and others are “trying to bring change to the Family Court system” in California.
She said her group, formed 20 years years ago when members saw “a crisis” in the Family Court system, asked lawmakers for the audit three years ago. It was approved, but the CJP sued the state auditor.
“And that took two years,” she said, adding that, during appeals, CPP asked lawmakers to defund the commission “because we believed CJP was not doing its job.”
But before he left office, former Gov. Jerry Brown fully funded the CJP, noted Campbell. The lawsuit ended, the audit was complete and it was released in April.
She agreed with Howle’s recommendations “but there needs to be more,” including evaluations of judges by the CJP and “anyone who sits on the bench,” including a retired or visiting judge, or a commissioner. “We’re approaching the problem by looking at each player and who was involved in the case.”
“It is my hope that all the recommendations are enacted and that the CJP will comply with the audit,” said Campbell. “We believe CJP has been in denial that they were complying with the audit after the lawsuit ended.”
The executive director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, Kathleen Russell of San Rafael, noted that some of the audit’s recommendations were for the Legislature to carry out, while others were directed at the CJP.
For years, the judiciary has had “no checks and balances,” especially in the Family Court system, where “the vast majority of complaints get tossed out,” she asserted. “They’re protecting the judges, not the public.”
Russell said she and others were “concerned about the public being seriously harmed in court,” adding that her research indicated only 4 percent of judges cited in misconduct complaints are ever disciplined.
After the Sacramento meeting, the chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, issued a press release.
“This audit report clearly identifies changes that are needed at the CJP to improve its processes for investigating allegations of misconduct,” he said. “Oversight and accountability are critical to ensuring that the public is protected and standards for proper judicial conduct are enforced.”
In the prepared statement, Salas noted the committee heard testimony from, besides Howle, Gregory Dresser, director and chief counsel at Commission on Judicial Performance; Bridget Gramme of the Center for Public Interest Law; and Bacigalupo.
“The problems of the Family Court system are being exposed,” Campbell said. “The only people who asked for the audit are people who are working to change the Family Court system.”
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee meets again in October in the state Capitol.