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Retired Judges Must Choose Between Public, Private Jobs

Chief justice draws hard line between courts and high-paying work on civil disputes.

January 31, 2003|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, concerned about ethical improprieties by retired judges who serve on trial courts while engaging in lucrative private judging, has ordered the state's jurists to make a choice between the private and public sector by today.

The new policy, which changes decades of practice in California, is intended to draw a line between the courtroom and the state's huge private judging industry. It will close a revolving door that has made many retired judges wealthy and raised questions about conflicts of interest on the bench.

George said he knew the decision would not be popular with judges, "but I thought it was the right thing to do." He set the deadline several months ago.

Private judges decide civil disputes for litigants who pay them. Many corporations and well-known figures prefer the private judging system because matters can be resolved expeditiously and out of the public view. Consumer groups counter that the system, often forced on individuals in contracts and during hiring, favors corporations.

George said that some retired judges serving in Superior Courts have solicited business from the bench for their private judging businesses. He also is concerned that the public might think judges with private business could favor litigants who are potential future clients. Particularly galling to George is the case of a Los Angeles judge, whom he declined to identify, who called a recess in a complicated trial -- in which a jury had already been seated -- to attend to his private judging work.

Judges who have straddled both lines of work strongly oppose the new rule and predict it will lead to an exodus of some of the state's most experienced jurists from public courtrooms. In many counties, courts rely heavily on these assigned judges to come out of retirement and share the workload.

Retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Hodge predicts 80% of the retired judges who now sit by assignment in the Alameda court will choose to work full time as private judges. Hodge is among them. He said that, in addition to his state pension, he can make $4,000 a day deciding matters for paying litigants in a private setting, compared with $513 a day on the court.

But the separation is painful.

"I feel I have been cut off from the family of judges," Hodge said. "Truthfully, I don't feel I am a judge anymore."

On the other side are judges who consider George's decision long overdue and complain that the private judging system is corrupting California courtrooms.

"My own view is, this concept of a private judge is an oxymoron," said Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline. "A judge by definition is not economically dependent on the parties whose disputes he is adjudicating. That is not true in California, and therein lies the problem."

During the past couple of decades, the private judging industry in California has exploded. Judges on the bench who are approaching their 20-year retirement dates frequently ask to be transferred to Civil or Family Law courts to build resumes and contacts for future work in the private system. Those courtrooms can become business opportunities.

"The judiciary is used as a steppingstone to wealth," said retired Sacramento Judge Barry Loncke, who serves exclusively in the trial courts. Under the state Constitution, the chief justice has sole authority for assigning retired judges to Superior Courts. George said this provision gives him the ability to establish the policy himself.

Last year, about 365 retired judges signed up to serve on trial courts. George expects the number to drop to about 250 as a result of the new rule. "We can absorb the loss," he said.

In Los Angeles, Presiding Judge Robert Dukes said the effect of having fewer retired judges willing to serve "will not be as dramatic as it would have been" because the court is closing courtrooms to accommodate budget cuts.

Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jaime R. Corral is one of the Los Angeles judges who will no longer serve on the bench because of the new rule. He previously worked on assignment, primarily in Juvenile Court. "I think it is somewhat unfair that we all get punished for the evils of a few," Corral said.

Corral spent most of his career on the bench in Juvenile Court, but he asked to be transferred to Civil Court six years before his retirement "so I could be exposed to the civil bar" that hires private judges.

He didn't get the downtown courthouse, which handles most of the civil cases and can be a boon to judges who plan to judge privately upon retirement. "I worked out of Pasadena ... so my business is a little slower to come," Corral said. Still, he did meet litigants who have since hired him in the private sector.

"It does work," he said.

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