MARTINEZ – A five-times disciplined Contra Costa County judge has jailed the founder of a group that was the leading lobbyist for a recently announced audit of the state's commission that disciplines California judges, an incarceration that activists say appears retaliatory.
"This is a very punitive sentence," Kathleen Russell, the executive director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, another group that pushed for the audit, said in a Northern California Record telephone interview.
Joseph Sweeney, founder of the advocacy firm Court Reform LLC, currently is being held on a contempt charge in the Martinez Detention Facility. The San Ramon resident, whose work is widely cited as the driving force that lead to a joint committee of the California Legislature's authorization earlier this month of an audit of the Commission on Judicial Performance, was sentenced two days after the audit was announced.
The CJP is the state's only judicial oversight agency and the audit, passed by a unanimous vote without debate by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, will be the first audit of the agency in the state's history.
Sweeney has filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, claiming violations of his First, Eighth and 14th Amendment rights when Contra Costa County Superior Court Bruce Clayton Mills on Aug. 12 handed down a 25-day jail sentence. Mills also ordered Sweeney to pay $25,000 in fines and other sanctions after finding Sweeney in contempt of court for allegedly violating a family law judge's order not to talk or write about matters relating to his divorce case.
The sentence startled the membership of the various groups that have worked for about a decade to bring about the audit of the CJP. News about Sweeney's jailing now overshadows celebrations about the audit.
"It's shocking," Russell said. "I've been getting flowers and cards congratulating me and he's been thrown in jail over the same work we did together."
The contempt charge stems from Sweeney's divorce, which already was the subject of a controversial ruling handed down May 27, 2015, by California's 1st District Court of Appeal. Court observers say that decision is being interpreted as allowing trial courts to classify dissemination of information as a form of domestic abuse.
Sweeney, who married Keri Evilsizor in 2010, became concerned after he allegedly read a message on his stepson’s phone that their daughter, born in 2012, was not biologically his child, according to appelate court records. The message allegedly indicated Evilsizor had received fertility treatments without Sweeney's knowledge. Sweeney purportedly then downloaded the contents of Evilsizor’s cellphones, which were not password protected, and confronted her with the information. Sweeney also allegedly went, uninvited, to the home of Evilsizor’s parents and disclosed to them private, sensitive information about Evilsizor.
Separation and divorce proceedings soon followed. When Sweeney used text messages to support his case in court, Evilsizor sought and got a restraining order under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act to stop Sweeney from further disseminating the downloaded information without the court's permission, according to court document.
The appeals court ruled that the restraining order did not violate Sweeney's constitutional rights. The case has been appealed to the California Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Sweeney, through Court Reform LLC, has been active within a coalition of two dozen groups who have been calling for the CJP to be audited by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. In March, Sweeney and Court Reform LLC released a 78-page report that compared the CJP to similar agencies in other states. The report claimed the CJP was ineffective at enforcing judicial discipline, wastes public money and is too secretive about its operations.
The audit was announced Aug. 10 and Mills handed down the sentence against Sweeney two days later. Sweeney was jailed on the Aug. 19.
Sweeney's supporters point to Mills' record with the JCP, which has disciplined him five times, a notable record considering the judicial disciplinary body is accused of being too lax and lenient.
“There’s a possibility, at least, that this could be retaliatory,” Tamir Sukkary, adjunct political science professor at American River and Sierra colleges in Sacramento and a member of one group that has been calling for the audit, told NewsReview.
A petition drive is underway asking California Gov. Jerry Brown to pardon Sweeney.
Meanwhile, activists who worked for the audit are at least trying to focus on what the outcome of that audit might be.
"We expect the audit to turn up a lot of answers about how the commission operates," Russell said.
The CJP long has been criticized for not being transparent and details about how the commission reaches decisions, or fails to act, are very thin on the ground, Russell said.
"No one really knows how the commission operates," she said. "It isn't clear if they actually review the cases or if attorneys triage the cases, make recommendations and then the CJP rubber stamps those."
The audit may begin in January with the result made public later in 2017, Russell said.
Russell said she hopes that reforms and greater transparency follow the audit. In particular, Russell said she would like to see a tracking system put in place that would detail cases by county.
"That way, we could tackle hot spots in the state," she said.