AVALON — Residents of this small island town say they are surprised and angry that a state judicial commission wants their only judge kicked off the bench.
"It came as a great surprise to me," said Mayor Hugh T. (Bud) Smith, who emphasized that he was not speaking in his official capacity. He said Catalina Justice Court Judge Robert H. Furey Jr. was "elected by the people, and if any censuring is going to be done, it should be done by the people."
The eight-member state Commission on Judicial Performance, meeting in San Francisco on June 11, called for Furey's ouster after finding that he had violated a variety of rules of conduct, primarily holding minor violators in contempt of court and jailing them for days.
Furey, who was suspended with pay until the state Supreme Court acts on the recommendation, has not been available for comment since his suspension. According to the commission's report, Furey denied committing "willful misconduct" in office, and told the commission that any transgressions resulted from inexperience.
Furey, 57, was elected to Avalon's only judgeship in 1982, outpolling his nearest competitor by a margin of 2 to 1. Because of a small caseload, he has presided only one day a week in the Avalon court, usually Friday. The remainder of the week he has been assigned to various municipal courts around the state.
Earlier this month, he ran unsuccessfully for election to the San Pedro Municipal Court bench. Both Furey and his opponent, Judge David Kennick, were rated "not qualified" by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., which said Furey lacked the necessary "judgment and judicial ability." Furey, who received an engineering degree from Notre Dame in 1959, was a steel mill foreman, civil engineer and computer salesman before he entered Northrop University Law School in 1973.
He was admitted to the California Bar in 1977 and worked in private practice for 19 months. He then served first as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and then as a county public defender before winning the judgeship. His term runs through 1988.
Although Furey's principal home is in Torrance, he has an apartment on Santa Catalina Island and was reared there. His father was a U.S. Coast Guard captain on the island, and many of Furey's former high school classmates still live in Avalon.
Several Avalon residents said in interviews that the community voted for Furey because he promised to be tough on criminals. Residents, many of whom are generally distrustful of people from the mainland, also were pleased that Furey was an islander.
"He ran on a strong law-and-order campaign," said W. F. (Oley) Olsen III, a hotel manager and former city councilman. "He was tough, but everybody seemed to like that."
"He comes from a real fine family," said Lolo Saldana, the town barber and a former classmate of Furey. "I don't know all the allegations, but it seems some of them are little things that shouldn't warrant a thing like this. It's crucifying a good man."
Of the 20 specific allegations against Furey, 10 involving one woman took place in Avalon. The others were in Los Angeles and San Pedro courtrooms, and two involved his advice to judges on cases that were transferred from Catalina.
The judicial commission gave this account of the Avalon incidents, which began in August, 1983:
Furey allegedly became angry when he found out that the woman, Nancy L. Cuskaden, had complained about him to the commission, which is responsible for investigating charges of misconduct by judges and recommending punishment. The commission has not disclosed any details of Cuskaden's original complaint.
Furey summoned her to his court to explain her action, and when she invoked her right to remain silent he ordered her to appear before a Long Beach Municipal Court judge to show cause why she should not be held in contempt for harsh language in her letter to the commission. He also ordered her to stay out of his courtroom unless she was a party to a case or a witness, or he would find her in contempt of court.
Cuskaden got the Long Beach court appearance postponed, but when Furey heard that she had been seen in Avalon that morning, he assumed that she had defied his order and again summoned her to his courtroom, where he found her in contempt of his order and sentenced her to five days in jail and a $500 fine.
Later that same day, Furey recalled Cuskaden and questioned her about her son renting a hotel room, apparently in violation of a local ordinance forbidding minors to do so, although no charges were ever filed. She again invoked her right to remain silent, and Furey slapped a second contempt charge, another five days in jail and a $500 fine on her.
A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles, finding the contempt order flawed, freed her five days later.