HUNTINGTON PARK — Three Southeast Municipal Court judges here have billed Los Angeles County for more than $120,000 in legal expenses in their battle to require court clerks to speak only English on the job.
The bills apparently will have to be paid by county taxpayers, despite objections from the county Board of Supervisors, who in April unanimously asked the judges to rescind the English-only rule.
Judges Russell Schooling, John Bunnett and Porter deDubovay were involved in three separate lawsuits after they imposed the English-only rule in March, 1984.
In a suit filed against the judges in March of this year, a Latino court clerk claimed the rule was discriminatory. The clerk, Alva Gutierrez, in April won a preliminary injunction against the English-only rule in federal District Court. A trial is to follow. The judges have since appealed the injunction to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The judges filed a separate lawsuit this year against the county Civil Service Commission after the commission attempted to hear a challenge to the English-only rule. The judges are claiming in the state Court of Appeal that the commission had no jurisdiction over their courts. The case is pending.
Refused to Pay Bills
The judges also sued county Auditor-Controller Mark Bloodgood earlier this year when he refused to pay the judges' legal bills and won that case in Superior Court. The county has not appealed.
The $120,824 in legal bills as of Oct. 31 were disclosed in a Nov. 7 memo from Bloodgood to county supervisors. In the memo, released about 10 days ago by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, Bloodgood said the cost of the judges' legal defense will "undoubtedly escalate."
Hahn criticized the judges' actions as "misguided." At a supervisors' meeting Tuesday, Hahn asked County Counsel DeWitt Clinton to research whether the county could refuse payment of the judges' legal bills. Clinton said he knew of no way the county could refuse payment, but that he would research the issue.
The three judges refused comment, but Greg Petersen, a Santa Ana lawyer who represents them, said that by releasing the cost of the judges' defense, the supervisors were attempting "a political grandstand" play.
"Unfortunately a large portion of the monies which have been spent are a result of the frivolousness of the Board of Supervisors in its attempt to politicize the issue," Petersen said.
Hahn could not be reached for further comment.
Petersen defended the judges' legal battles as an attempt to prevent one minority group from discriminating against another. The English-only rule was imposed after a black court clerk complained that some Latino clerks were talking about their colleagues in Spanish, Petersen said.
Different Court Actions
Petersen added that the judges' defense was costly because it involved 10 different actions in state and federal courts.
Gutierrez's lawyer, Gloria Allred, said in an interview that the legal fight is a "waste" of taxpayers' money.
"This suit should have been settled a long time ago," Allred said, charging that the judges were taking a "free ride" by charging their defense costs to county taxpayers.
Gutierrez, 29, a bilingual court clerk-interpreter assigned to the Huntington Park court, is now on stress-related medical leave.
In April, when U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois Jr. issued the preliminary injunction against the English-only rule, he said, "The fact that this case has come this far without being resolved is rather vivid testimony that black robes do not by themselves bestow wisdom upon those who wear them."