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Judge Used His Court's Facilities to Intimidate Her, Tenant Alleges

A state commission is investigating O.C. Judge John M. Watson, who says no rules were broken.

August 15, 2004|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County woman has complained to the state Commission on Judicial Performance that Orange County Judge John M. Watson manages his home-rental business out of his courtroom, using court personnel and resources in the process.

Leticia Banuelos and other tenants say Watson used his judicial clout to bully them, communicating on court stationery and sending his clerk to check on the properties.

"His whole judge-intimidation thing works," said Banuelos, a former tenant of Watson. "People normally fear their landlords, but when your landlord is a judge, it's that much worse."

The charges raise questions about Watson's willingness to follow rules that require judges to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, said legal ethics expert and Los Angeles lawyer Diane L. Karpman.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 138 words Type of Material: Correction
Orange County judge -- An article in some editions of the Aug. 15 California section about allegations of misuse of judicial power involving Orange County Judge John M. Watson said he "declared unconstitutional a county policy raising the assessed value of homes more than 2% annually and later lodged an appeal with the Orange County assessor using similar arguments to lower the taxes on one of his rental properties." That statement, which implied that Watson's appeal for his own rental properties was based on Proposition 13, was incorrect. Watson actually had argued that the county's policy was discriminatory because it meant some property owners received greater tax increases than others. The article also incorrectly reported that the state Supreme Court overturned Watson's decision in a separate property tax case. The ruling was overturned by a state appeals court.

"Sending something [to tenants] on court stationery is scary," Karpman said. "It gives tenants the impression he can bring the whole legal system against them if they complain too much."

Watson, 60, did not return calls to his courtroom and home seeking comment and his clerk could not be reached. Watson told the Orange County Register, which reported the complaint last week, that he has occasionally asked his court clerk to handle phone calls regarding his rentals and sent tenants correspondence on Superior Court letterhead, but said his activities did not constitute misuse of taxpayer resources.

"I checked," he told the Register, "and no rules were broken."

Banuelos rented a two-bedroom La Habra condo from Watson in April 2001. She had rented from several bad landlords, she said, and at first took comfort in the fact that Watson was a judge. "I thought he'd be respectable and law-abiding," she said.

But when things started going wrong in the apartment, Banuelos became uneasy about Watson's management style -- in particular, his requirement that she call his courtroom and speak with his clerk. Repairs went unfinished, Banuelos said, such as the kitchen lighting that stayed broken for three months, forcing her to cook and wash dishes by candlelight.

She moved out in September 2003, buying a house in La Mirada so she "wouldn't have to deal with jerky landlords anymore."

Her troubles with Watson weren't over, she said. After disputing his claim that she owed nearly $200 in cleaning costs, she took the judge to small-claims court. He sent her a letter Sept. 24 on Superior Court letterhead telling her a jury trial would be a better forum for her complaint.

"It is a venue I have been comfortable with for the last 34 years," he wrote. "Looking forward to seeing you in court."

They settled out of court last month, agreeing that Watson would refund her entire deposit.

She then wrote to the state judicial commission, complaining that Watson used court resources to intimidate her. The commission has the power to discipline judges for violating the American Bar Assn.'s rules of conduct for judges.

Banuelos did not cite any particular rules Watson may have violated, and none of the actions she cited are explicitly outlawed. But the judicial code does say that "a judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge."

More generally, the rules state that judges must avoid "even the appearance of impropriety." The judicial code does not define what behavior creates such an appearance; the interpretation is up to the commission.

Tenants at his other property, a trio of small houses near Whittier, echoed many of Banuelos' allegations. Several said they believe Watson unfairly requires them to pay for some maintenance or delays making repairs, but that they're too afraid of the repercussions to file any sort of protest or disclose their names. They are all participants in Section 8, a federal program that subsidizes the rents of low-income families.

They said Watson recently paid for $6,000 in plumbing repairs but then told them they would be responsible for any further expenses.

The tenants say they have done what they could to improve the property's appearance, planting grass in the back and repainting some walls. But from the front, the property looks barren, a leafless tree sitting behind the mailboxes and brittle patches of grass struggling through the dirt.

Tenants say Watson has them mail their rent checks to his courtroom and occasionally sends his clerk during business hours to check on things at the property.

"His courtroom is in Santa Ana, but he thinks those black robes apply everywhere," one woman said. "He abuses his authority while we're over here living like dirt."

Officials from the judicial performance commission said they could not comment on the case, but Banuelos received a letter this month confirming it will investigate her complaint.

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