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Judge May Face Sanctions

Federal jurist improperly took over bankruptcy case, judicial panel says

January 18, 2004|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A veteran federal judge faces disciplinary proceedings after he improperly seized control of a bankruptcy case in an effort to protect a woman whose probation he had decided to oversee personally, according to a federal judicial disciplinary council.

Penalties for District Judge Manuel L. Real, 79, who has been a controversial member of the federal judiciary in Los Angeles since 1966, could range from a private reprimand to loss of the authority to hear cases.

The proceedings in the case have largely taken place out of the public eye. The judicial council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which supervises federal judges in California and eight other Western states, handed down its ruling on Real in mid-December, but the decision has never been formally published and has not been placed on the court website.

The decision, cryptically titled "In Re Complaint of Judicial Misconduct," does not mention Real by name, but his identity is revealed in a court opinion referred to in the disciplinary panel's ruling.

Legal experts say that although the next steps in the case are up to the chief judge of the 9th Circuit, the council's ruling means that some sort of penalty against Real is highly likely.

That alone would make his case rare. More than 99% of the complaints filed against federal judges around the country are dismissed out of hand. The 9th Circuit council has reprimanded only two jurists in the last decade, while rejecting hundreds of complaints, according to official records.

Beyond that, Real's opponents say, the case provides a textbook example of the way a federal judge -- holder of a lifetime appointment -- can abuse his power on behalf of an individual he favors.

Real did not respond to requests for comment.

The judge has a reputation for being charming outside court but cantankerous and peremptory on the bench. He is famous among lawyers for telling attorneys who appear before him: "This isn't Burger King. We don't do it your way here."

Real has "created a courtroom of terror," said Victor Sherman, a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer.

The case involves one of Real's idiosyncrasies: For the last 25 years, he has personally supervised numerous cases of criminals on probation, according to a statement he made to the judicial council. The judge said he had taken pride in helping criminals rehabilitate themselves by getting directly involved in their activities.

One of those people on probation was Deborah M. Canter, who pleaded guilty in April 1999 to one count of loan fraud and three counts of making false statements.

Real sentenced Canter, who was 42 at the time of her plea, to five years' probation and community service and put her under his personal supervision, meaning that he met with her and her probation officer at 120-day intervals.

Two months before Canter pleaded guilty, she and her husband, Gary -- a member of the family that owns Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue -- had separated. He moved out of the house on Highland Avenue where the couple had been living with their daughter.

The home was owned by a trust established by Gary Canter's parents. While the couple were living together, Gary sent rent checks to his father, Alan. But after the couple split up, Deborah Canter apparently fell behind in the rent. In October 1999, Alan Canter filed suit against her, seeking to evict her from the house and to collect $5,000 in back rent.

Twenty-four minutes before a trial was to begin on the eviction, she filed for bankruptcy, which had the effect of stopping the eviction proceedings.

A few months later, in February 2000, she signed an agreement to move out. But just days before she was scheduled to leave the house, a secretary for her lawyer drafted a letter from Canter to Real, "asking for his help in preventing her eviction," according to the judicial council's findings.

Shortly afterward, Real used his power as a federal judge to take control of the bankruptcy case away from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alan Ahart. Real then reinstated an order blocking the eviction that Canter and her attorney had earlier agreed to.

Real's ruling came "a day or two after" Canter delivered the letter, according to the statements from the secretary who drafted the letter.

"The next time they saw each other" Canter told the secretary the letter had "worked," according to the judicial council's decision. Canter could not be reached for comment.

Real twice denied motions filed by the Canter trust that would have permitted it to evict Deborah Canter. When Herbert Katz, an attorney for the trust, asked why, Real's only explanation was, "Because I said it," according to court records.

Real's order surprised Deborah Canter's lawyer, Andrew E. Smyth. In an interview, he said that months later he told his secretary he was still perplexed about what had happened. Then the mystery was solved.

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