House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) introduced a resolution on Monday to permit the committee to open an inquiry into possible grounds for the impeachment of U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of Los Angeles.
"This resolution has become necessary due to a breakdown in the judicial branch's enforcement of the judicial discipline statute Congress enacted in 1980," Sensenbrenner said in a formal statement.
Sensenbrenner's action stems from a long-running controversy involving a misconduct complaint against Real, who has been a federal judge in L.A. for nearly 40 years. Real, 82, seized control from another judge of a bankruptcy involving Deborah M. Canter, whose probation he was overseeing. He then permitted Canter to live rent-free for three years in a Highland Avenue house, costing its owners $35,000 in rent and thousands more in legal costs, according to court documents.
A sharply divided national federal judicial discipline committee ruled 3 to 2 in late April that it had no power to sanction Real because Mary M. Schroeder, the chief judge of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, failed to properly investigate the complaint.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 161 words Type of Material: Correction
Judge impeachment: An article in Tuesday's California section about the first step in possible impeachment proceedings against U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of Los Angeles said that former federal Judge Alcee L. Hastings of Florida in 1989 had been convicted of a federal crime, and that the conviction was subsequently overturned. Hastings was not convicted of a federal crime. In 1983 he was acquitted by a jury on charges of conspiracy to solicit and accept a bribe. In 1989, Judge Hastings was impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate on eight articles of impeachment, including one that he had engaged in a corrupt conspiracy to obtain $150,000 from defendants in a criminal case. Subsequently, a federal judge in Washington overturned the Senate action, saying Hastings' rights had been violated. But that decision was vacated by a federal appeals court. In 1992, Hastings was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida and remains in Congress.
Federal Court of Appeals Judge Ralph K. Winter issued a blistering dissent at the time, saying the panel's failure to act would tend to erode public confidence in the federal judiciary's ability to police itself.
Subsequently, Sensenbrenner, coauthor of legislation that would create an independent inspector general for the judicial branch, held a hearing on the bill at which the Real complaint was discussed.
Schroeder subsequently appointed a five-member committee of judges, chaired by 9th Circuit Judge Susan Graber of Oregon, to look into Real's conduct. The committee has hired San Francisco labor lawyer Judith Droz Keyes to conduct an investigation and has scheduled a hearing starting Aug. 21 at the 9th Circuit courthouse in Pasadena.
Federal judges are appointed, not elected, and serve for life "during good behavior," as specified in the Constitution. They can only be removed from office through impeachment by the House of Representatives, then trial and conviction by the U.S. Senate.
Sensenbrenner said his resolution was "modeled after the last three impeachment resolutions that the House used to investigate" three federal district judges: Harry E. Claiborne of Nevada in 1986, Alcee L. Hastings of Florida in 1989 and Walter L. Nixon Jr. of Mississippi in 1989. All three were impeached after being convicted of federal crimes. However, Hastings' conviction was overturned and he was later elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat.
Sensenbrenner cautioned "my colleagues and others not to jump to any conclusions in this manner. Today's resolution merely allows the House Judiciary Committee to determine the facts." Only after the committee "has conducted a fair, thorough and detailed investigation, will committee members be able to consider whether Articles of Impeachment might be warranted."
The Times was unable to reach Real or lawyers representing him for comment.
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert who has been following the Real controversy closely, said that what the judge "is alleged to have done is quite serious." However, he said the allegations against Real are "not in any way equivalent" to the charges against the three judges impeached in the 1980s. No one has suggested that Real committed a crime.
"Sensenbrenner has an agenda of scaring federal judges," Gillers said. "His legislation would give the inspector general enormous power," including the power to look into matters well beyond allegations of misconduct, including controversial rulings. Gillers said the federal judges who had failed to take seriously the charges against Real had given Sensenbrenner an opening "for his war on the judges."
Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said he, too, was troubled by Sensenbrenner's legislation. But he said the situation shows that when the judiciary's self-policing system fails, there "is not an alternative to impeachment."