IRVIN – At a recently held annual meeting of the Alliance of California Judges (ACJ), several controversial cases brought before the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) were the topic of a discussion by attorneys Edith Matthai, Paul Meyer and Heather Rosing.
Members of the ACJ expressed concern that judges disciplined by the CJP are not receiving what they feel is due process. Since 1960, California judges have been subject to scrutiny for their judicial performance by the CJP, a state agency. The CJP investigates complaints of misconduct against judges, who are bound by the code of judicial ethics. The code applies to all judges serving on California's Superior Courts and the justices of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. Anyone can file a complaint - jurors, attorneys, court personnel, legislators and members of the public.
The ACJ was formed in 2009 with a stated mission to independently “...advocate and communicate on behalf of judges with the public, media and executive and legislative branches.” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, director of the ACJ, explains that “The ACJ agrees that the CJP should hold judges accountable and should require adherence to the canons of ethics. As judges, we are rightfully held to a high standard of conduct so that the public we serve will have confidence that cases are being handled fairly. Nevertheless, we also believe that structural reforms in the commission must be implemented so that judges are afforded the same basic due process rights that others enjoy in our justice system.”
An August letter from 4 state lawmakers to the California Legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee seeks to ensure that judges get due process. Currently, judges are told there is an accusation but they are given only cursory information, not told who complained, and there’s no discovery unless there’s a trial.
Judge Maryanne Gilliard told the Northern California Record that the CJP needs to be more transparent.
“Taxpayers have a right to know how government funds are being spent, particularly when these monies are spent on a little known secretive bureaucracy, the CJP, which has never been audited," she said.
The CJP serves as judge, prosecutor, jury and executioner," Gilliard added.
"Its design affords little to no due process rights for those caught in its crosshairs. This procedure flies in the face of what we as Americans expect of our justice system," she said.
One of the cases that has drawn the ire of the ACJ is the case of Ventura County Judge Nancy Ayers, who faces disciplinary action for keeping a guide-dog-in-training in her courtroom. The dog, an eight-month-old Labrador named Frank, is one of the dogs Judge Ayers trains. The judge has been training dogs for six years. The presiding judge gave Ayers permission for Frank to be in court and Edith Matthai, who represented the judge, explains that Frank kept quiet and still.
However, a defendant felon in a criminal case complained to the commission about Frank after Ayers ruled against him. The CJP sent Ayers a letter of admonishment, claiming she had violated one of the ethical canons of the judiciary. Ayers appealed to the California Supreme Court, who dismissed the case.
Gilliard said that was the right call.
“The Ayers case is the perfect example of why a hard look is needed. We recently honored Judge Ayers for her courage in appealing her case to the Supreme Court, making public a private letter of unwarranted discipline. And she prevailed," Gilliard said.