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Retired O.C. judge barred from court over behavior

Susanne Shaw can't take occasional cases or act as an arbitrator after state panel calls her 'abusive and demeaning.'

December 22, 2006|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Susanne S. Shaw was barred permanently from courtrooms Thursday after a state investigation concluded she had been "abusive and demeaning" toward defendants, attorneys, witnesses and a prospective juror.

Shaw, who left the bench in September after 21 years, received the maximum penalty for a retired judge.

The state Commission on Judicial Performance reviewed five criminal cases in 2003 and 2004 presided over by Shaw and found 42 instances of misconduct.

Because Shaw had been disciplined repeatedly in the past, the commission said there was a "high probability she will continue her unethical behavior if she were to sit in a judicial capacity in the future."

Retired judges are often called upon to hear cases or act as court arbitrators.

Shaw could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Her attorney, Edith R. Matthai, said Shaw had agreed to the censure "in light of statements made by the Court of Appeal regarding her handling of various cases" and the fact that she is retired.

"Nobody likes to have discipline, obviously," Matthai said, but "she agreed to this, period. She's a civilian now, a private citizen free to do whatever she wants in retirement."

During past disciplinary investigations, Shaw denied any impropriety in her courtroom behavior.

"I'm a very caring person," she told a three-judge state panel that ultimately cleared her of misconduct charges six years ago. "I care about what happens when defendants go out these double doors."

Before Thursday's action, Shaw has been rebuked three times by the commission and repeatedly admonished by Court of Appeal for her courtroom conduct.

According to the commission's latest findings, Shaw frequently belittled attorneys, often in front of the jury. In a December 2004 aggravated-assault trial, Shaw said the defense counsel was acting like "a bunch of babies" when one of them told her she had a doctor's appointment in two days that couldn't be rescheduled.

At a different trial that same month, the commission said Shaw responded sarcastically to a prospective juror's statement that she might have a problem because she was studying to be a social worker and had a paper due.

"Well, that's nice," the judge said. "I've got lots of things to do too. My problems are of constitutional proportions, so you are going to have to do that at night."

And when the same prospective juror returned late from lunch to the judge's courtroom, Shaw ordered her to be in court the following morning for a meeting with her, an abuse of a judge's authority, the commission said.

In one of Shaw's 2004 cases, an appellate court reversed a criminal conviction partly because of "the atmosphere of unfairness" created by Judge Shaw's "caustic, condescending" remarks to the defendant and his counsel. In that case, the panel said, the court found the judge's "demeaning lecture" to be "wholly uncalled-for."

"Making fun of a lawyer in front of the jury is unacceptable," the appellate court found, "particularly where, as here, the lawyer is doing her best to represent her client and ... not demonstrating disrespect of the court."

Carole Levitzky, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Superior Court, declined to comment on Thursday's action, which publicly censures Shaw and bars her from "receiving assignments, appointments, or references of work" from any California state court.

"Judge Shaw no longer works for the court," Levitzky said.

Attorneys who have appeared before her, however, came to the judge's defense.

"She was always a little eccentric in her courtroom demeanor," said Matt Murphy, a senior deputy district attorney, "but I always found her fundamentally to be fair. I really don't have anything negative to say about her; I always felt like I got a good trial and I always found that the sentences she gave were just."

Paul Meyer, a former Orange County prosecutor now working as a defense attorney in private practice, agreed.

"I have appeared in front of her for years," Meyer said, "and I think she is a very passionate person who has a very good heart. I've always found that she has a very strong sense of humanity; she's a judge who feels passionately, and I know that on occasion, her emotionalism has put her at odds with things in the courtroom, but deep down inside she is a good person who has always tried to do the right thing. No one I know has ever questioned her sincerity."

A spokeswoman for the Commission on Judicial Performance did not return a call.

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david.haldane@latimes.com

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