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The Judge Decided for Himself--as Usual

Jurist: Czuleger gave neither side all it wanted. His independence has led him to preside over a series of high-profile cases.


SANTA ANA — The prosecutor pushed for a six-year prison term and a $400,000 fine. The defense attorney pleaded for probation and said his client would be willing to pay $10,000.

Judge J. Stephen Czuleger listened intently to arguments from both sides, then came up with his own plan for Robert L. Citron's fate.

In sentencing Citron to a year in County Jail, Czuleger was true to form: He has earned a reputation for handing down the harshest of sentences but also showing compassion for contrite criminals. Either way, those who know him say he's always fiercely independent.

That is probably one reason why Czuleger has been thrust in one high-profile case after another, making him one of the rising stars on the Los Angeles Superior Court bench. Last month, he was selected to hear the probation violation hearing of Death Row Records owner Marion "Suge" Knight. During the O.J. Simpson criminal case, Czuleger was called upon to resolve disputes involving grand jury investigations of Simpson and his longtime friend Al Cowlings.

Czuleger was selected to sentence Citron after Orange County's presiding judge disqualified the entire Orange County bench from hearing the matter because of potential conflicts of interest.

The judge's appointment last January left many guessing about the punishment the former county treasurer might receive for his role in causing the worst municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

But Loyola Law School professor Laurie L. Levenson, who worked with Czuleger when they both were U.S. prosecutors, cautioned that the judge "was not going to get swept up in the public nature of this case," referring to the daily publicity of the county's 1994 bankruptcy after losing $1.64 billion through poor investments.

"He's going to say, 'I need to know enough to be comfortable that he is not deserving of prison time.' "

Still, Czuleger appeared Tuesday to be grappling with the question of whether there is "some sort of outrage out there in the community."

At one point, he asked Citron's attorney, David W. Wiechert, if he agreed that "the public's perception of justice being done is important" in this case. Wiechert replied that the charges against Citron were "not about the Orange County bankruptcy."

In the end, the judge seemed to have resolved the question when he told Citron that "I'm not in the vengeance business. I'm in the business of trying to come up with some sort" of fair sentence.

Czuleger added: "Your best decision was to plead [guilty] early and to cooperate" with investigators.

Czuleger, 44, graduated from Loyola University Law School in 1976. He later worked for the U.S. attorney's office, handling major murder trials and white-collar crime cases. In 1988, he was appointed to the Municipal Court by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, who promoted him to Superior Court two years later.

Defense attorney Harland W. Braun, who last year successfully defended a Glendora doctor facing rape charges in Czuleger's court, said the judge is known for impartiality.

"Most judges are running dogs for the D.A.'s office, [but] Czuleger is not," said Braun, a former deputy district attorney and a lawyer for one of the police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney G. King.

Czuleger had studied reams of documents about Orange County's bankruptcy when he was the presiding judge in the August trial of former County Budget Director Ronald S. Rubino.

Both sides estimated that the trial would last three months, but after some key rulings, Czuleger sliced the evidence phase to three weeks.

When the case ended in a mistrial--jurors were leaning 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal--Czuleger was instrumental in getting both sides to craft a plea agreement.

Both prosecutors and Rubino's defense said they were happy with Czuleger's rulings.

"He is one of the top three judges I've appeared before in my 20 years of practicing law," said Assistant Dist. Atty. Jan J. Nolan.

Rodney Perlman, Rubino's attorney, described Czuleger as "even-handed" and having "a wonderful temperament."

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