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Controversial Custody Cases Make Judge a Recall Target

Courts: Nancy Wieben Stock ruled on Simpson children and on two who were later killed by their mother. Jurist's defenders say effort against her 'politicizes' judicial system.

February 18, 1997|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — In no state is the specter of a recall election used more effectively or more frequently than in California, where not even judges are immune.

And nowhere is that illustrated more dramatically than in Orange County, where a jurist celebrated by her peers for being not only competent but also respected and fair is being assailed for her controversial ruling in the O.J. Simpson child custody case.

The threat has grown so serious for Orange County Superior Court Judge Nancy Wieben Stock, 45, that even her closest colleagues concede privately that her chances for evading a recall appear to grow dimmer by the day.

"It's time to stop looking at judges as some untouchable god you can say nothing about," said Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles-based Women's Progress Alliance, which is leading the recall effort.

"The recall process is a way of bringing people back to the system," Bruce said. "We're going to use Nancy Wieben Stock as an example. I've heard her supporters say she's a courageous judge, but when do two dead children add up to courage?"

It's more than the Simpson case that some are holding against the judge.

There is also the matter of Storm Cameron Kyle, 9, and Tarah Leigh Kyle, 7, whose recent deaths are fueling Bruce's crusade. The Kyle children were the son and daughter of Marcia Amsden-Kyle.

Last month, Amsden-Kyle killed her two children and then killed herself, according to the Riverside Police Department, which ruled the deaths murder-suicide. It was Judge Wieben Stock who in 1991 had given Amsden-Kyle shared custody of her two children.

Bruce and her supporters have attempted to draw a parallel between Amsden-Kyle and Simpson, saying that both were perpetrators of domestic violence and that Wieben Stock ignored evidence of such behavior in awarding both custody of their children.

The weapon Bruce and her legion have chosen--the recall--is, in many respects, what elevates this effort to the level of political intrigue, especially in California, which leads the nation in attempting to recall governors, Supreme Court justices and state legislators.

If California is the home of the recall, then its heartland is Orange County, where attempts have been made to recall more than 200 public officials since the early 1970s. Of those, 24 were ousted from office, which leads all other counties in the state by a wide margin.

If Wieben Stock is recalled, however, she would be the first Orange County judge driven from office via that method.

Led by Gov. Hiram Johnson, California initiated the recall procedure in 1911 despite complaints that recalls ought to be used only for politicians, not judges--a suggestion Johnson vehemently resisted.

"A small, determined band of people can take over the recall process and get rid of just about anyone they want to," said Charles Price, a political science professor at Cal State Chico and an expert on recalls. 'The recall process has many advantages, but there are flaws as well--in some cases, serious flaws."

Stephen Densmore, the attorney for the Women's Progress Alliance, which describes itself as a women's and children's rights organization, said the recall tactic became imperative in the Simpson case when Wieben Stock "kept out any evidence of the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson."

She then compounded the sin, in his words, by choosing to award custody to the former football star, whom Densmore characterized as a 'killer and a vicious batterer" whose actions have inflicted permanent scars on his son, Justin, 8, and daughter Sydney, 11.

Wieben Stock's rulings "reflect a general insensitivity to domestic violence and its effect on children," Densmore said.

Densmore also took issue with Wieben Stock's decision not to delay a ruling on custody until after the Simpson civil trial in Santa Monica, where a jury found him liable for the slayings of his ex-wife and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages.

Densmore said the Orange County judicial community has rallied around Wieben Stock "in a circle-the-wagons strategy. . . . They're taking the stance that recall is an inappropriate means of removing [her] because it 'politicizes' the judicial system."

But the law of recall makes no exceptions, said Densmore, who contends that "there's no law in California or anywhere else that says--in the context of recalls--that a judge should be any more independent than any other elected official."

So the effort is proceeding. Bruce and Densmore say they intend to file a notice of recall by March 1, after which they would have five months to gather the requisite number of signatures--an estimated 138,000. Their goal is 200,000.

If sufficient signatures are verified, the registrar of voters would call for a special election at an undetermined time.

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