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California and the West

Guru's Feud With Judges Fuels Lengthy Legal Battle

March 17, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — This is a tale of the nasty fight between the guru and the judges. Even the governor has been dragged into the fray.

Deepak Chopra, the New Age superstar and best-selling author who preaches the value of cosmic harmony and inner tranquillity, is at war with San Diego's judicial system.

It began with claims of sexual harassment by two women who formerly worked at Chopra's mind-body wellness center here: One woman accused him, the other accused one of his partners. Chopra fought back with his own suits against his accuser, one of her lawyers and investigators he accused of stealing his lawyer's trash.

Chopra, 53, who lives in La Jolla, is adamant that the women and their lawyers, with the help of conniving judges, are trying to extort money from him with lies.

"I look at these people as hyenas after my blood and marrow just because they think I have money," said Chopra, whose yearly income has been estimated at $15 million.

The India-born, Western-educated endocrinologist, who teaches that inner harmony can fight off disease and aging, is not the first celebrity to fight back against his accusers. Still, his counteroffensive is impressive for its fury and endurance.

During six years of litigation, four judges have become so infuriated at the hardball and accusatory tactics of Chopra's lawyers in five different cases that they have voluntarily recused themselves.

"In my more than 30 years as a trial lawyer and as a Superior Court judge, I have never witnessed such misleading, manipulative, distorted, deceptive, vitriolic action by any lawyer or law firm," Superior Court Judge John Einhorn told a Chopra lawyer before bowing out.

Chopra's lawyers have complained to the FBI, the California Supreme Court and the state Commission on Judicial Performance about the judges.

Chopra wrote to Gov. Gray Davis about the jurist he sees as his major nemesis, Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell: "I feel impotent and paralyzed because [of] the cronyism and corruption in the San Diego judicial system."

Chopra's complaint comes as McConnell is under consideration by Davis for appointment to a state Court of Appeal post in San Diego. When Davis hosted the California Governor's Conference for Women in October in Long Beach, Chopra was a featured speaker.

Davis responded to Chopra: "You may be assured that your views will receive due consideration when this appointment comes up for my review."

Chopra is convinced that he has fallen into a judicial snare in which out-of-town lawyers--his are from a Boston-based firm--do not stand a chance against certain well-connected San Diego firms.

One that opposes Chopra is Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich, among the city's premier law firms.

Chopra and his attorneys insist that McConnell, by ruling against Chopra, is trying to curry favor with Gray, Cary to gain its backing for her prospective promotion.

"I want this on the record: I am going to get Judge Judith McConnell in the end; she will not get away with this corruption," Chopra told a reporter during a break from a tour for his 25th book, "How to Know God."

Litigation does not occur in a civic vacuum, and for years some San Diego judges, like some San Diego surfers, had a locals-only ethos that discouraged outsiders.

Three judges and a once high-flying litigator were convicted in 1996 in federal court in a gifts-for-favors scandal that prosecutors asserted blew the lid off a cozy bench-bar relationship that had flourished for decades. Testimony showed that cases were steered toward "friendly" judges.

Chopra, whose admirers include Shirley MacLaine and the Dalai Lama, believes that his case is just the latest chapter of that scandal, with different judges but the same kind of insidious localism. Talk like that leaves some normally reticent jurists sputtering.

"The judges of this court continue to pay for the sins of Mickey Greer [and the other two convicted judges, James Malkus and Dennis Adams] and be open to unjust and unwarranted accusations, totally lacking in fact and substance," said Presiding Superior Court Judge Wayne Peterson.

Chopra's lawyers say he views the fight as a quest to bring the truth to light, regardless of the fact that he has already spent far more in legal fees than settling the cases would have cost him.

"I think Deepak is being used by God to expose the corruption in the San Diego judicial system," said Carla DiMare of Boston-based Flynn, Sheridan, Tabb & Stillman.

Hardly a week goes by that one or more of the cases is not before one court or another, with Chopra winning some rounds, losing others, but always pressing on.

"The reason that this litigation has gone on so long is that neither Deepak Chopra nor his lawyers know when to quit," said Gray, Cary lawyer James Huston. "Every time a ruling goes against them their response is that this shows the conspiracy is broader and deeper than they imagined."

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