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Ethics Charges a Bid for Revenge, U.S. Judge Says

Jurist Manuel Real tells House panel that attorney Stephen Yagman's claims of misconduct stem from a `personal vendetta.'

September 22, 2006|Henry Weinstein and Moises Mendoza | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Embattled federal Judge Manuel L. Real told a congressional subcommittee Thursday that he did nothing wrong in seizing a bankruptcy case from another judge, insisting he was the victim of "a personal vendetta" by Venice civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman.

Real, who has been a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles since 1966, spoke before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, which is considering his possible impeachment.

The veteran judge said he took over the case of Deborah M. Canter, a female fraud defendant whom he was supervising during her probation, because the bankruptcy judge had received a confidential report that might have affected his judgment. Yagman, who had no role in the bankruptcy but has long been Real's nemesis, filed a complaint against the judge three years ago.

"I did not make any rulings in her bankruptcy action based on any" secret communications or "to benefit an attractive female" as alleged by Mr. Yagman, "an accusation I find repugnant, particularly at my age," said Real, who is 82.

Moreover, when Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) asked Real if Canter was "attractive," the judge responded, "I recall her, and if you want just a frank answer, she's not attractive to me."

Thursday's hearing, broadcast live on the Internet, came against a backdrop of congressional turmoil over the federal judiciary. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the courts subcommittee, has a bill pending to create an inspector general to probe misconduct by federal judges, who are appointed for life "subject to good behavior."

The Senate Judiciary Committee this week held a hearing on splitting up the 9th Circuit, the nation's largest and most liberal federal appeals court, which has been the target of conservative attacks because of decisions striking down death sentences, upholding environmental protections and declaring compulsory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by schoolchildren unconstitutional.

While federal judges can only be removed by the same complex impeachment process used to topple presidents, they can be censured by their peers. In the case of the Real complaint, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals drew widespread criticism by repeatedly deciding against discipline. Two days ago, a special commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer castigated the 9th Circuit for its inaction.

Under fire, Mary M. Schroeder, the 9th Circuit's chief judge, revived the inquiry in May, ordering a formal investigation. That did not deter Sensenbrenner from asking the court subcommittee to hold is own hearing.

At Thursday's proceeding, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said she thought the hearing was politically motivated. "I believe we are here today because of the [Republican] majority's animosity toward the 9th Circuit. For that I apologize," Lofgren said.

She quickly added, addressing Real, "I have reservations about your opinions, but that is not a reason to short circuit" the 9th Circuit probe.

Arthur Hellman, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who is considered an expert on the federal court system, agreed that the 9th Circuit process should be allowed to run its course. But Hellman cautioned against discounting the hearing.

Depending on what the 9th Circuit investigation reveals, Real's actions could constitute an impeachable offense, "although only marginally" because thus far there has been no showing "of criminality or corruption," Hellman said.

"If I thought that [the congressional investigation] had targeted Judge Real based on displeasure with the substance of his decisions, I would strongly oppose any effort to proceed with impeachment," Hellman said. "But Judge Real has not decided any cases on the Pledge of Allegiance or same-sex marriage or the various other subjects that arouse public passions today."

The case that led to the complaint was more mundane. Six years ago, Real decided to personally oversee the probation of Canter, who had pleaded guilty to loan fraud in his court.

During his many years on the bench, Real has won praise for his personal supervision and rehabilitation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of criminals. His reputation is as a charming man outside court but a cantankerous and peremptory one on the bench. He is famous for telling attorneys who appear before him: "This isn't Burger King. We don't do it your way here."

Two months before her conviction, Canter and her husband Gary -- a member of the family that owns Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue -- had separated. She agreed to pay rent to remain in the Highland Avenue house where the couple had lived with their daughter.

According to court documents, she fell behind on the payments and eviction was initiated. Just before the eviction trial, Canter filed for bankruptcy.

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