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There Goes the Judge

By Megan Kinneyn | Dec. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Dec. 2, 2007

There Goes the Judge

What were they thinking? The archives of the Commission on Judicial Performance offer cautionary tales—and juicy reading—about judges who've been bounced from the bench.

Just how low does a California judge have to go to be forced out of his or her job? The state's eleven-member Commission on Judicial Performance is responsible for answering that question. And, in fact, the commission rarely rules that a judge deserves to be bounced from the bench. Since 1960, this independent agency has publicly reproved 17 judges, admonished 48, and censured 41?but it has removed only 23.
      The commission archives on those discredited 23 do not reveal any instances of murder or even malicious malfeasance. But they do record plenty of bad language, bad attitudes, and most of all bad judgment. Here are five of the state's most colorful tales of judicial indiscretion?with plenty of lessons on how far (and easily) the mighty may fall.
      The Judge: William D. Spruance
      Took the Bench: 1971
      Removed: 1975, from Municipal Court for the San Leandro?Hayward Judicial District of Alameda County
      The Official Rap: Inexcusable and reprehensible conduct constituting willful misconduct in office in some instances; and in others, conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, bringing the judicial office into disrepute.
      William D. Spruance had been practicing law for almost two decades when he was elected to the bench in January 1971. But then it took him just a few years to get into a variety of compromising situations.
      Spruance "treated attorneys and litigants in a cavalier, rude and improper manner," according to the California Supreme Court. In the summer of 1972, for example, he presided over People v. Fusilero. While the defendant was testifying, the judge gave him a "raspberry" to indicate his disbelief of the witness. And the state Supreme Court found that it was not Spruance's first such transgression: "Such derisive sounds had been made in open court on other occasions," it stated. He once made "a vulgar gesture (... digitus impudicus) in reprimanding a defendant for coming in late in a traffic matter."
      Spruance also threw his weight around. He "demeaned" Deputy District Attorney Melville Behrendt, an attorney who had appealed his decision in another case, and placed him under restraint. He subjected Victor J. Gianunzio, an attorney he had opposed while he was in private practice, to improper cross-examination when Gianun-zio moved to disqualify him. Later, the judge improperly levied witness fees against Gianunzio.
      Spruance also favored his friends and political supporters. He tried, unsuccessfully, to force a deputy district attorney into accepting a negotiated plea for Christopher Stephen Goulardt. Spruance then suppressed the evidence and acquitted the defendant, who was the son of a longtime friend, Kenneth Goulardt. In another case, Spruance improperly transferred to his own court a felony assault case involving Ralph N. Leines, the son of a friend and political supporter, and then released Leines on his own recognizance "to prevent the defendant from being booked and interrogated by the police pursuant to the execution of an outstanding warrant for his arrest." Spruance also informed Deputy District Attorney George Nicholson that he had done favors for people in the past, and that he intended to continue to do so.
      From July 1971 to July 1972 Spruance consistently appointed two attorneys, Julio Juarez and Robert Winkler, in criminal cases in which either the defendant was not entitled to counsel at public expense or the public defender had not been requested to represent them. Juarez was appointed in 18 cases and Winkler in 9 cases, constituting 44 percent of all appointments Spruance made during that year. Juarez and Winkler?who were paid at least $150 of Alameda County public funds for each court appearance?had been friends of the judge since the early 1950s.
      Judicial Don't: Avoid giving "raspberries" to witnesses when you don't believe their testimony.
      The Judge: Leland W. Geiler
      Took the Bench: 1966
      Removed: 1973, from Los Angeles Municipal Court
      The Official Rap: Guilty of conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice in five instances and bringing the judicial office into disrepute.
      It was a fall day in 1970. strolling the corridors of the Los Angeles Hall of Justice, Leland W. Geiler walked up behind a traffic-court commissioner, reached under the man's crotch and grabbed him by the testicles. Judge Geiler caused the commissioner so much pain that the man nearly passed out.
      This sort of lewd behavior wasn't entirely out of character for Judge Geiler. During a conference in his chambers one morning the following year, the judge thrust a battery-operated dildo into a public defender's buttocks. Later that day the judge referred to this incident twice in open court "so as to curtail the victim's cross-examination of two witnesses."
      With his clerk, Geiler was also profane and abusive. "Get the motherfuckers ready. I will be there shortly," he would typically tell her with reference to cases and people in his courtroom. Once, when his clerk returned late from lunch, Geiler told her she was "nothing but a fucking clerk" and that she was to do exactly as told.
      Judicial Don't: When attempting to influence counsel's behavior, don't brandish a dildo as your weapon of choice.
      The Judge: Thomas B. Fletcher
      Took the Bench: 1988
      Removed: 1988, from Madera County Superior Court
      The Official Rap: Willful misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.
      Certainly, no one could accuse Judge Thomas B. Fletcher of discriminatory bias, as Fletcher appeared indiscriminate in encouraging all sorts of defendants appearing before him to participate in a Saturday morning men's fellowship and Bible-study group he led. One he invited was on probation for brandishing a firearm, another was a defendant in a drunk-driving case, and a third was a recently divorced father charged with violating a protective order. Fletcher also met with a speeding violator in a coffee shop and suggested traffic school and community service. On multiple occasions, the judge telephoned defendants for whom bench warrants had been issued, including defendants he knew, to advise them to come to court.
      The Commission on Judicial Performance found that Fletcher had engaged in multiple ex parte communications with defendants and their relatives. But more egregious was his attempt to obscure his ex parte role in a drug case in which he granted diversion treatment to the nephew of a friend, even though Fletcher had been advised that the defendant was ineligible. The judge directed his clerk to alter a minute order but not to indicate she had changed the order. The California Supreme Court noted that: "The evidence strongly suggests he took this action after receiving the Commission's inquiry about his ex parte communications in the case."
      Then there was the episode of the group photograph. During the first half of 1994 when Fletcher was running for reelection, at the end of a court session he had a group photograph taken of court staff and others who appeared before him. Both his clerk and the public defender initially declined his request to pose for the picture, but the judge insisted. (The clerk felt that the judge had "ordered" her to participate, leaving her no choice.) Most of those photographed believed the picture was simply a personal memento; none understood that Fletcher would use it in his reelection campaign?particularly since both the PD and the clerk had informed the judge that they did not want to be involved in the campaign. In May of that year, the judge paid a local newspaper to print the photograph one week before the election, with the caption "Paid Political Advertisement." The special masters and the commission concluded that "part of [Fletcher's] motivation in placing the advertisement was to assist his reelection campaign" and that, by failing to get consent from those photographed, his "conduct surrounding the taking and use of the photograph ... constituted prejudicial misconduct."
      When seven members of the commission recommended Fletcher's removal, Fletcher cried conspiracy rather than express contrition. "I just want to point out to the Commission that just about most of the witnesses that gave damaging testimony against me were all bias [sic]," he stated. "They were all in concert together. They had meetings. They associate with each other. They had all one intent and purpose, to get me removed from the bench." If that's true, they were successful.
      Judicial Don't: After granting diversion treatment to an ineligible relative of a friend, don't try to cover your tracks.
      The Judge: Noel Cannon
      Took the Bench: 1963
      Removed: 1975, from Los Angeles Municipal Court
      The Official Rap: Twenty-one acts of willful misconduct in office and eight other acts constituting conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
      When Noel Cannon came up before the investigating Commission on Judicial Performance in 1975, 17 private attorneys, one deputy district attorney, and one public official all testified in her favor. But not one public defender spoke up for Judge Cannon. It's no wonder, considering the commission determined that the judge had, with "bad faith and maliciousness," ordered the incarceration of several PDs who had displeased her, requiring defendants to go to court with unprepared substitute counsel.
      The litany of deputy public defenders whom Cannon cited for contempt includes John L. Ryan (released on a writ of habeas corpus before booking); Michael Karagozian (released on a writ of habeas corpus on the same day as his incarceration); Vernon L. Putnam (released on a writ of habeas corpus after five hours in the county jail-Cannon purged the contempt citation the following day); and Tod Ridgeway (released after four hours by a telephone call from the judge, who later purged the contempt citation).
      When Cannon's deputy marshal returned from transporting Ridgeway to the county jail, the judge asked him, "Did they look up his asshole?" When the marshal told her that Ridgeway was a diabetic and would require special treatment if incarcerated, she said, "Fuck his diabetes, fuck his diabetes."
      The Supreme Court concluded that Cannon wanted to inflict a completed punishment before the deputies were afforded a due-process determination that punishment was warranted, and each time she did it in a way that ensured her conduct would be insulated from judicial review and collateral attack.
      She had other eccentricities that didn't seem to bother the Supreme Court. For example, she kept a small dog at her bench and a mechanical canary in her chambers. But Cannon could be arbitrary and vindictive, and that did rankle the court. She arbitrarily revoked a dismissal and remanded an accused to custody when he refused to stipulate to probable cause for his arrest. She arbitrarily revoked certification of a minor to juvenile court on certain charges and revoked bail when he refused to stipulate to a continuance of a preliminary hearing on other charges. Cannon then found both the minor and his mother in contempt of court, setting bail at $100,000 for each when they protested. And when another accused man complained that he wasn't being released on his own recognizance, she arbitrarily increased bail in steps from $3,000 to $50,000.
      Cannon also took aim at the police department. One November morning in 1972, the judge leaned on her car horn while waiting for a pedestrian to cross at an intersection. Police officer Richard Fagin pulled up alongside the judge's car and suggested that she ease off the horn. She told him she would honk her horn any time she damn well pleased.
      "Ma'am, there is a vehicle code section that covers excessive use of the horn," said Fagin.
      "You go to hell, officer," said the judge.
      Upon arriving in her chambers shortly thereafter, Cannon said to her bailiff, "Find the son of a bitch. I want him found and brought in right away. Give me a gun; I am going to shoot his balls off and give him a .38 vasectomy."
      After several police officers?including a sergeant, a lieutenant, and a captain?appeared in her chambers, officer Fagin also showed up. The judge was no longer "hysterical," and they had a nice little chat about public defenders, the "revolving door" of justice, the guillotine, and "things in general," all very friendly and civil.
      Two weeks later, the chief of police received a letter from the judge commending Fagin, but it was too little, too late, evidently. The special masters recommended Cannon's censure. The commission sought removal, and the Supreme Court agreed.
      Judicial Don't: Never swear at a police officer while violating the vehicle code.
      The Judge: David M. Kennick
      Took the Bench: 1972
      Removed: 1990, from Los Angeles Municipal Court
      Retired: 1988
      The Official Rap: Persistent failure or inability to perform judicial duties; also censured for willful misconduct in office and conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the administration of justice.
      In the summer of 1985, a police officer stopped David M. Kennick for drunk driving. The judge refused field-sobriety and blood-alcohol tests, and he was abusive to the arresting officers. The next day, he went to a CHP office and allegedly told a sergeant he "would like to make a deal or something," asking if the paperwork could get lost between the CHP and the court, or barring that, if something could be worked out with the captain. Instead, the charge went through and Kennick was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol with a plea of nolo contendere.
      Drunk driving and many other lapses by Kennick were "insufficient to warrant his removal, even though they clearly support the lesser discipline of censure," the state Supreme Court found. It put this drunk-driving incident in the "willful misconduct and prejudicial conduct" category. The same went for Kennick's "abusive behavior toward a deputy district attorney; treating witnesses in a demeaning and discourteous manner; favoring two attorneys, one of whom he owned property with, in his appointments of counsel; and improperly suggesting to a waitress in a restaurant that she should not worry about her drunk driving arrest."
      Kennick's big mistake? He was asked to hang up his robes after he stopped showing up for court. Over a period of nearly two years Kennick was found AWOL for 96 days, and without explanation he stopped working entirely at the beginning of 1987. "Removal from office on the ground of persistent failure or inability to perform his judicial duties was appropriate," the court ruled. Kennick claimed that his retirement during his disciplinary review made the proceedings moot. The court, however, disagreed, and removed him from the bench in 1990, barring him from any future judicial appointments.
      Judicial Don't: Even though you've had your hand slapped, don't forget to show up for work.
      Michael Lester is the founding father of Dad magazine ( and a former editor at California Lawyer, for which he last wrote "The Long Goodbye" (January 2005).

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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