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'I am a good trial judge,' Riverside County jurist tells state commission

Robert Spitzer, accused of 'willful misconduct,' says he should not be removed from office.

August 30, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Judge Robert Spitzer, the hopelessly messy jurist who faces possible removal from the bench over allegations that he let cases languish and improperly contacted witnesses, told a skeptical state judicial panel Wednesday that he should be censured but allowed to keep his job.

In a hearing before the state's Commission on Judicial Performance, the Riverside County Superior Court judge was accused of repeatedly lying and undermining public trust in the judiciary.

Trial examiner Andrew Blum said the commission had brought Spitzer up for questioning in 2003 after receiving complaints about his failure to rule in a timely manner. The judge promised to take care of delayed decisions and escaped discipline, but didn't change, he said.

"This was not one period of bad behavior," Blum said. "Judge Spitzer's misconduct has gone on for years.

"Given Judge Spitzer's extensive history of misconduct and failure to reform, it seems very likely he will re-offend," Blum said. "To protect the public, Judge Spitzer should be removed from office."

Spitzer told the commission that he had never lied and that he deeply regretted the series of missteps that brought his office into disrepute.

His obsessive-compulsive disorder and disorganization prevented him from keeping up with "the avalanche of cases," Spitzer said.

In the instances in which he contacted outside parties without the knowledge of lawyers, Spitzer said he was simply trying to resolve cases quickly in Riverside County's busy court system.

"I am a good trial judge," Spitzer said at the hearing. "In attempting to do the right thing, in some instances I did the wrong thing. . . . I am capable of change and reform, and the improper conduct will not reoccur."

But some commission members seemed to find some of Spitzer's explanations doubtful.

During the hearing in an ornate courtroom at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, members frequently interrupted Spitzer's self-deprecating and deferential remarks.

As Spitzer apologized to the commission for failing to respond to their queries, saying he regretted hurting his colleagues and the community that honored him with his office, commission members interjected with cutting questions -- impatient to get to the substance of the charges.

Justice Judith D. McConnell of the 4th District Court of Appeals said Spitzer had defied orders from his presiding judge and for months failed to cooperate with the judicial commission's investigation into his conduct. Given his failure to carry out those basic obligations, she asked whether he was capable of "properly and ethically" performing his duties as judge.

Commission member Marshall B. Grossman demanded an explanation for Spitzer's assertion in the 2003 appearance that he had no cases outstanding beyond 90 days.

How can the public have confidence, Grossman asked, in a jurist "who either can't make decisions or won't make decisions" or simply cannot keep track of the matters before him? McConnell said Spitzer was initially moved from the criminal division to hear civil cases because the district attorney argued he was biased against prosecutors.

During Wednesday's hearing, the commission members based many of their questions on the findings of a three-judge panel that in January held a hearing on Spitzer's conduct.

The panel detailed a series of ethical violations and improper actions by Spitzer in an 82-page report that they sent to commission members in May.

Spitzer's most serious misconduct, according to the panel, was his interference in a 2004 murder case in which a boy was killed by a drunk driver.

After the trial resulted in a hung jury, Spitzer pressured the victim's mother, a potential witness in the retrial, to pursue a lesser charge of manslaughter, the panel found. He also pressured prosecutors to reduce the charge. The three-judge panel said that amounted to "willful misconduct."

On Wednesday, Spitzer was grilled again about that incident.

"You interjected yourself into the proceedings. . . . You intimidated" the victim's mother, said Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Horn, the commission's chairman. "How did that square with you being a good trial judge?"

Spitzer explained that he was trying to comfort the victim's mother. He said the case was extraordinary because of animosity between the victim's mother and the prosecutor.

"It was not my intention to get her to act as some kind of shill for the court," Spitzer said. "I understand now . . . what's important is the public perception of that."

Horn and McConnell also asked Spitzer why he had allowed cases to lapse just weeks after promising the commission in 2003 that he had revamped his organizational system.

"I'm having trouble understanding how we don't have any impact on your conduct," Horn said, after citing an example of an order Spitzer said he signed in December 2003 -- just after appearing before the commission -- that his clerk did not process for six months.

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