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Impediment to the Courts

March 13, 2004

For the last five months, Judge Chesley McKay Jr. has been too sick to take the bench in his Lancaster courtroom. According to a public statement he released last month, the "extensive permanent heart damage" the Los Angeles Superior Court judge has suffered means he probably won't return to work soon, if ever.

When he realized the severity of his illness in September, McKay, 53, should certainly not have sought reelection in March. But he did, filing a petition for reelection before applying for permanent disability. Last week, Los Angeles County voters reelected McKay to another six-year term.

The judge's courtroom will stay dark until the state Commission on Judicial Performance gets around to reviewing his disability claim. That could be an unfortunately long while.

Created in 1960, the watchdog agency has the power to discipline or remove corrupt and incompetent judges. Over the years, the panel has contributed to California's enviable reputation for upstanding judges. But the commission's excessive secrecy and its slow pace erode its effectiveness. Two or three years can pass before the panel issues a final decision on a complaint.

By law, the court must notify the commission when a judge has been absent for 90 court days. The Los Angeles court's presiding judge did that Feb. 2. Notification prompts a commission inquiry, a process that usually takes far too long, and already has in McKay's case.

The panel's next meeting is March 30; seven months will have passed since McKay stopped working and nearly two months since the commission first learned of his absence. Meanwhile, McKay still gets his $143,838 annual salary.

The March 30 meeting may just start the formal review. The commission could accept medical records McKay may have submitted and grant his disability request then. But if members question that evidence, they could call a formal hearing.

Such a hearing might push a decision on McKay's petition to summer.

Sometimes an independent probe is necessary. Two years ago, one local judge applied for disability, claiming chronic fatigue syndrome and phobias. Yet news reporters found him attending a Caribbean medical school, apparently healthy, while taxpayers continued to pay him. When discovered, he resigned.

McKay's case is different. In his ballot statement -- a gloomy farewell in which he details his medical history -- McKay asked voters to "reelect me and let Gov. Schwarzenegger appoint my successor."

The commission shouldn't need a full-blown adversarial hearing and more months to decide this case.

Lancaster-area residents whose disputes are delayed and McKay's colleagues who are shouldering extra cases need another sitting judge, not another investigation.

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