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High Court Curbs Power of Judicial Watchdog


SAN FRANCISCO — State judges who make legal mistakes can be disciplined only if they acted in bad faith, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The decision is expected to reassure a jittery state judiciary concerned over a pending discipline case against veteran Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline, who has been charged with willful misconduct for failing to apply a controversial California Supreme Court precedent in a dissent.

The Commission on Judicial Performance, the state watchdog agency, brought the case against Kline last year and also meted out the discipline that triggered Thursday's ruling in the case of Kern County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Oberholzer.

The court ordered that an advisory letter, known as a "stinger," issued to Oberholzer by the commission be withdrawn. The commission had rebuked the judge in the letter for dismissing a criminal case.

Even if Oberholzer misapplied the law, he should not be disciplined for a legal error unless it "clearly and convincingly" reflected bad faith, bias, abuse of authority, disregard for fundamental rights, intentional disregard of the law or any purpose other than the discharge of judicial duty, the court held.

"Mere legal error, without more, is insufficient to support a finding that a judge has violated the Code of Judicial Ethics and thus should be disciplined," the court said.

Hundreds of judges have been sent "stinger" letters, but Oberholzer was the first to challenge one. Some judges resent the letters, while others prefer that they be allowed as an alternative to more formal discipline.

The court, disagreeing with the Commission on Judicial Performance, held that the letters constitute discipline because they can affect a judge's chances for elevation to higher courts and future discipline actions.

A California Superior Court judge who has closely watched the commission's disciplinary actions said state judges will be pleased by the court's ruling.

"There is a lot of fear of the commission," said the judge, who asked to remain unidentified so as not to possibly antagonize the commission. "There is a lot of fear of any organization that works in secret."

The commission is composed of members appointed by several leading elected officials, including the governor, state Supreme Court members, the Assembly speaker and the state Senate president pro tem.

James E. Friedhofer, a San Diego lawyer who represented Oberholzer, called the ruling a "significant victory" for judicial independence and predicted that it will make the judicial performance commission more cautious about issuing such disciplinary letters in the future.

"The commission will take more seriously its responsibility to be fair to judges before sending out these letters," Friedhofer said.

Thursday's ruling also represented a mild rebuke to Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels, who filed the complaint against the judge. Jagels held a news conference after Oberholzer dismissed a child-molesting case in which he accused the judge of having acted in a "juvenile, kindergarten temper tantrum."

Oberholzer dismissed a felony count against defendant Keith James, who was accused of committing a lewd and lascivious act upon his 9-year-old niece. The district attorney's office had asked for a continuance because the case had been transferred to a new prosecutor who was not prepared for trial.

The California Supreme Court said Oberholzer "properly" denied the "inadequate" motion for continuance. Oberholzer dismissed the case after the prosecutor then refused to proceed.

The Supreme Court said Oberholzer might reasonably have viewed the prosecutor's action as "an intolerable affront to the authority of the trial court" and could have even sanctioned the deputy district attorney for contempt.

"Our review of the proceedings as a whole suggests that [Oberholzer] in fact demonstrated extraordinary patience in dealing with an unprepared and unyielding prosecution," the court said.

Jagels said Thursday that he was "kind of surprised" by the ruling but added: "I can see how one could construe this particular decision as technically correct." James, the accused child molester, was later recharged and acquitted at trial.

Victoria Henley, director and chief counsel for the Commission on Judicial Performance, said the ruling provided "useful guidance." She said she was pleased that the court upheld the commission's right to issue advisory letters without a full-blown hearing.

Asked whether the ruling might make the commission more cautious about issuing advisory letters in the future, Henley said: "I think the commission is always concerned about taking the appropriate action that is warranted on the facts."

Henley refused to comment on the pending case against Kline. But James Brosnahan, Kline's attorney, said the ruling supports Kline's defense to the commission charges.

"The most serious part about the Kline matter is that it casts a cloud over the independence and the proper activity of judges throughout California," Brosnahan said. "They should not have to worry about whether the commission is going to agree with them on a point of law."

The commission recently canceled a scheduled public hearing on the Kline case and decided to review written arguments instead. His supporters viewed the action as a first step toward dismissing the misconduct charges against him.

Kline refused "as a matter of conscience" to follow a California Supreme Court ruling that allows litigants to reach a settlement that wipes out previous judicial holdings in the dispute. Judges are supposed to follow the precedents of higher courts, but Kline said he filed his dissent in an attempt to get the Supreme Court to reconsider the issue.

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