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Panel votes to censure U.S. judge

In a rare move only inadvertently made public, action is urged against Manuel L. Real of L.A. for misconduct.

December 23, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A judicial discipline council has voted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions on a veteran Los Angeles federal judge who improperly seized control of a bankruptcy case to protect a probationer he was supervising.

But it is far from clear when, or even whether, the decision of the judicial council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco will become officially public.

On Nov. 16, the council ordered that U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real, 82, be publicly reprimanded for his intervention in the bankruptcy almost seven years ago, permitting Deborah M. Canter to live rent-free for three years in a Hancock Park house, costing her creditors $35,000 in rent and thousands more in legal costs, according to court documents.

Real's misconduct "warrants the corrective action of 'censuring or reprimanding' [him] by means of public announcement," because his "misconduct continued over a substantial period of time, was repeated and caused significant harm to a litigant," the council -- led by the 9th Circuit's chief judge, Mary Schroeder of Phoenix -- concluded. That decision ratified the findings of four judges, led by 9th Circuit Judge Susan Graber of Portland, Ore., who conducted an extensive investigation earlier this year.

It is very rare for federal judges, who are appointed for life, to be disciplined. Aside from Real, only two judges in the 9th Circuit, which covers California and eight other Western states, have been reprimanded in the last 15 years, while hundreds of complaints have been rejected.

Although the 9th Circuit order was issued more than a month ago, it has not been made public because of a 9th Circuit rule that such orders do not become public if either side appeals to the Judicial Conference of the United States. Real appealed on Dec. 15, and the conference, the chief policymaking body of the federal courts, has no deadline to rule.

However, the council's order was inadvertently posted for more than a week on the Internet by Thomson/West, a legal publishing service.

Four legal scholars who reviewed the judicial council's opinion for The Times said the decision was well-grounded, and they expressed dismay that it had not been made public immediately.

The council's opinion said Real, a federal judge in Los Angeles since 1966, had engaged in misconduct by taking over the case and ordering a stay of Canter's eviction based on information he obtained from Canter alone. Consequently, the council said, Real violated one of the most fundamental tenets of how a federal jurist is obligated to behave: A judge may not exercise judicial power based on communications from one party to a dispute without the knowledge of the other party.

Moreover, the council concluded by a 9-1 vote that Real's testimony was inaccurate and misleading and that his actions had been "prejudicial to the effective administration of ... the courts."

The council said, however, there was no evidence that Real had an improper personal relationship with Canter. When Real's longtime adversary, Venice civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman, filed the complaint against Real more than three years ago, he said that Real had acted on behalf of a "comely female," though he never asserted that they had a sexual relationship.

The council, consisting of five federal appellate and five federal trial judges, acted on the recommendations of a special committee of four judges that took testimony in a closed hearing in August from 18 witnesses, including Real, his secretary, several of his former law clerks and another federal judge, David Carter.

The committee called Real's testimony "inaccurate and misleading."

"Judge Real took the judicial actions he took for the purpose of assisting one party in the bankruptcy litigation," Canter, "for whom he had both sympathy and concern by virtue of her being a probationer in his court, to the substantial detriment of the opposing parties in the litigation," the investigating committee said.

The committee emphasized that "the evidence does not show that Judge Real's initial acts of misconduct were motivated by self-interest or malice, but rather were motivated by a desire, however misguided, to help a probationer."

When the council reviewed the committee's findings, Terry Hatter Jr., a veteran U.S. district judge in Los Angeles and longtime colleague of Real, was the sole dissenter. Real "already has been subjected to personal and public humiliation," apologized to the council and should not be subject to further "public reproval," Hatter said.

But the council concluded that potential sanctions "short of a public censure or reprimand," such as private reprimand, "do not sufficiently protect the public interest."

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