SANTA ANA — A state appeals court handed local judges a stinging defeat Friday, ruling that they were wrong in trying to jail Sheriff Brad Gates for his controversial practice of freeing inmates to avoid overcrowding in the County Jail.
"The Orange County jails are full," wrote Presiding Justice David Sills for a unanimous 4th District Court of Appeal. "Incredibly, because the sheriff will not lock up everybody sent him, some judges of the Central Municipal Court now want to put him in jail. . . . This is akin to shooting the messenger who bears ill tidings."
For more than a decade, Gates has been under a federal court order to control the jail population despite an ever-rising county arrest rate. But the sheriff's so-called "cite and release" policy frustrated Municipal Court judges who handed down sentences that were never served. So last year Presiding Municipal Judge Richard W. Stanford Jr. tried Gates for contempt, convicted him and sentenced him to 30 days in his own jail.
The sheriff never served that sentence because a Superior Court judge overturned the conviction, which again infuriated the Municipal Court judges and set the stage for the appellate court battle.
Gates, who had not yet read the decision, hailed the ruling, saying he had been "demeaned" and "demoralized" by the litigation, which "ridicules" the justice system.
Stanford, who lead the Municipal Court judges' fight against the sheriff, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. The judges' private counsel, Philip D. Kohn, was out the office and unavailable to comment.
The appeals court noted in its 23-page ruling that "Sheriff Gates comes to us after traveling a long and rocky road," summarizing 14 years of jail-related litigation in federal and state courts.
"In finding the sheriff guilty of contempt," Sills wrote, "the presiding judge of the Municipal Court delivered a civics lesson about the separation of powers. He should have discussed federalism.
"The single overriding fact here is (the) federal court order. It romps through this case like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. Neither the presiding judge of the Municipal Court, nor we, nor even the California Supreme Court has any legal authority to affect that order. One may applaud the order; one may deplore it. It makes no difference. The sheriff had no choice but to obey it."
The decision came two days after a disturbance at the Orange County Jail, which Gates and others blamed in part on overcrowding.
About 30 inmates at the Intake/Release Center in downtown Santa Ana, which is part of the jail, commandeered a recreation room and tore bolted tables from the floor and telephones from the walls. After a seven-hour standoff with deputies, the inmates returned to their cells.
Gates called the incident "a warning bell" and urged the Board of Supervisors to move ahead on the issue of building a new jail.
"I pray to God we get the solution before someone has to die to make this happen," Gates said. "I can't build the jail. I can't pick the site. I can't raise the money. . . . This case should just highlight the political embarrassment of this county."
The sheriff said the litigation was a "black mark" on his reputation and maintained that when the Superior Court overturned the contempt action, the Municipal Court judges should have dropped the matter.
"It's appalling to me that they continued to use the taxpayers' money and courtroom facilities" for the appeal, Gates said. He added that Stanford should be forced to repay the costs. Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger R. Stanton said he was "very delighted" with the appellate court ruling.
"I didn't see anything productive at all (in the Municipal Court judges' appeal). . . . Our sheriff is doing the best he can. I'm pleased that this is off his shoulder."
Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said he also was pleased with the ruling, calling it a "strong affirmation of the sheriff's and county's position."
He added that he hoped the appellate opinion would conclude the legal battle between the Municipal Court judges and the sheriff.
"Now that two courts have rendered decisions that affirm the sheriff's and county's position, I would like to think this will be the end of it." In the end, he said, "it's the taxpayers who pay for the needless appeals."
Both supervisors, however, that the court battle underscored the real problem in the county: lack of jail space.
But with the no real funding or location for a new jail, county officials say their hands are tied.
"We're always looking for possible solutions," Stanton said.
Crystal C. Sims, director of litigation for Orange County Legal Aid, said that she thought the ruling would keep the jail from further overcrowding but warned that there is "still a very severe problem . . . that's going to have to be dealt with in some way."