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Untidy ways may cost jurist his job

Riverside County Judge Robert G. Spitzer's chambers were so messy he often couldn't find or file documents.

January 23, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

By his own admission, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Robert G. Spitzer's chambers were so messy and disorganized that it frequently took him weeks, if not months, to find his own court orders.

Spitzer would stack overdue orders on the courtroom's windowsills and banisters without making sure his clerk had processed them. As a result, some cases were delayed a year or longer -- or never resolved, according to the California Commission on Judicial Performance.

On Monday, Spitzer appeared before a special panel of judges that will help the commission determine whether he is fit to serve on the bench. The three-judge panel, appointed by the state Supreme Court, heard testimony about Spitzer's sloppy record-keeping, along with allegations that he backdated court documents and conducted his own investigations during some criminal trials.

Spitzer's attorney, Reginald "Reg" Vitek, said in his opening statement that Spitzer's delays in signing orders stemmed from the fact that the judge is "obsessive-compulsive about getting things right."

"We're not talking about a carelessness or laziness problem," Vitek said. "He has horrible, horrible organizational skills ... the obsessiveness with getting things perfect is really a problem."

The Commission on Judicial Performance has charged Spitzer with willful misconduct, persistent failure or inability to perform his duties and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

After the panel submits its findings, the commission will decide whether to take action against Spitzer, which could include public or private admonishment or removal from the bench.

Spitzer has also faced scrutiny by the Riverside County district attorney.

In a murder case in which a 13-year-old was killed in a car driven by a drunk driver, Spitzer is accused of pressuring the child's mother to try to influence the district attorney to accept a manslaughter plea for the defendant after the trial ended with a hung jury.

The district attorney filed a successful motion with the court to prevent Spitzer from presiding over the retrial.

Then-Dist. Atty. Grover Trask then had Spitzer disqualified from all felony cases for more than a year because of a perceived bias against prosecutors.

During Monday's hearing, at the 4th Appellate District Court of Appeal in downtown Riverside, Spitzer struggled to explain why so many of his cases had languished or why he had occasionally taken over his clerks' job of date-stamping his own orders, but then failing to make sure they were processed.

Most of the problems, he said, stemmed from an "extraordinary" caseload and disorganization. "It's hard to describe how messy my chambers were," Spitzer testified. "I recognize that the level of dishevelment and apparent disorganization made a lot of people uncomfortable."

When he made a decision in a case, Spitzer said, he would sometimes sign the order and put it in the court file or with a stack of papers related to the case -- and at that point, he said, he considered the case resolved, even if the parties or his clerk had not seen the orders.

He was closely questioned on that point by one of the panel members, Appellate Court Justice Fred K. Morrison, who asked why Spitzer did not send out written notice of his decision in a civil case and whether he had a system of identifying cases likely to be appealed.

Spitzer said he had generally indicated to the attorneys what his decisions were in cases.

But in a 2003 case involving Moreno Valley and the Southern California Assn. of Governments, Spitzer's judgment was not processed until July 2004 -- more than a year after the judge said he had made his decision.

Spitzer is accused of backdating the document, and when SCAG filed a notice of appeal in August, it was denied on the grounds that the request was untimely.

In 2003, then-Riverside County Presiding Judge Douglas P. Miller alerted the commission in a letter that at least five cases in Spitzer's care were outstanding for more than 90 days, which triggered the commission's investigation.

In spring 2004, Miller ordered Spitzer not to take on a new trial until he had taken care of the outstanding matters -- an order Spitzer ignored. Spitzer said he resented the presiding judge's "persistence" to see if he was meeting his deadlines.

"He seemed to be attempting to micromanage cases assigned to me," Spitzer said. "I resented that interference with my cases.... I was trying to keep up with my work, yet he was giving me more work ... that was not case-related."

Spitzer denied backdating any documents, but his attorney said the judge did initiate conversations with witnesses or third parties to criminal trials outside the presence of attorneys. Vitek said his client never believed he was "running afoul" of the judicial canon.

"In every instance, it was his obsession with preserving judicial resources" and keeping trials from being delayed, Vitek said.

In the case of Spitzer's conversation with the mother of the juvenile killed by the drunk driver, Vitek said Spitzer spoke with her to keep her informed of the process and was simply trying to expedite a resolution to the case.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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