For Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, last week's favorable ruling by the state Supreme Court was little more than the predictable outcome of a nuisance lawsuit he always figured he'd win, another day in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
Speaking matter of factly after the court refused to reopen the case--in which Antonovich was accused of inappropriately phoning a judge on behalf of two campaign donors--the veteran politician dismissed the matter as "an example of the frivolous lawsuits that help clog up the courts."
Although Antonovich was cleared of financial liability in an earlier appeals court decision, his actions also were called "reprehensible" in a small portion of a long opinion. But the supervisor, whose district includes parts of the San Fernando Valley as well as the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys, brushed off that jab too.
In contrast, the case stirred years of soul-searching for Eric E. Younger, the now-retired judge whom Antonovich called in 1988. It marked the end of his long friendship with Antonovich and represented a rare crisis in an otherwise blue-chip career guided by the example of his late father, former state Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger.
In a short footnote to the same appeals court decision, Younger was admonished for failing to immediately end the telephone call from Antonovich. He later said the court's criticism unfairly subjected him "to a substantial and career-damaging injustice."
The footnote also criticizes Younger for waiting six weeks to remove himself from the case. After much thought, he wrote the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court asking to have the footnote erased--both times unsuccessfully.
Today, the 52-year-old Younger, who lives in Altadena, says he accepts the fact that the criticism will remain on the record. His main concern had been his reputation--"my only product, if you will"--and he said his new career as a private arbitrator and author has been going very well.
But the episode offers a glimpse at the ethical dilemma that judges face when someone unexpectedly tries to intervene in a pending case--especially a friend or acquaintance.
"Supervisors can talk about anything they want [with judges], but not cases pending before the court. That's a no-no, a judicial cardinal sin," said Gideon Kanner, an appellate law specialist and professor emeritus at Loyola Law School.
Judges often are caught off guard by acquaintances who approach them in social settings, start casual conversations and then bring up pending cases, said Santa Monica Superior Court Judge David Rothman, who writes about judicial ethics.
Particularly vulnerable are judges such as Younger, an active man from a prominent political family with many community ties, Rothman said, adding: "It comes unexpected, and sometimes you don't even recognize it."
That's exactly how Younger has described the November, 1988, phone call from Antonovich. The two grew up together in Los Feliz. Antonovich eulogized Younger's father after his 1989 death, and they had spoken countless times over the years about family, mutual friends and county business.
Before he knew it, Younger says, Antonovich brought up the case of Krikor Suri and his business partners in a downtown Los Angeles jewelry mart. The two were being sued by fellow investor Avedis Kasparian.
Younger says he abruptly changed the subject and ended the phone call as quickly and diplomatically as he could without hanging up "mid-sentence" on his old friend. He then began agonizing over how to handle the situation, knowing that he needed to remove himself from the case but loath to embarrass Antonovich, who he believed had just committed a "mildly dumb" mistake.
About six weeks later, after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays had passed, Younger disclosed the phone call to both sides of the case and removed himself as its judge. A big reason for the delay, he says, was that he wanted to consult his trusted father, who was on a cruise when the call occurred.
Younger had nothing more to do with the matter for nearly five years, until he was called to testify as a witness for Kasparian in 1993. In a related suit, Kasparian alleged that Antonovich had spoiled an out-of-court settlement that he had been negotiating because the phone call to Younger diminished his adversaries' incentive to work out a deal.
Kasparian had hoped to unload his share in the jewelry mart for $2 million but instead sold it to his adversaries for $800,000 after negotiations broke down, a profit reduction that he blamed on the supervisor's intervention.
Until then, Younger says, he continued to believe that the phone call had been an innocent lapse in Antonovich's judgment. But during the trial, he says, he learned to his chagrin that Suri and his partners had contributed $13,000 to Antonovich's 1988 reelection campaign just days before and after the call.