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O.C. judge scolded for antics in courtroom

June 07, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Orange County Superior Court Judge James M. Brooks has again been reprimanded for misbehaving, this time by a state appeals court that found he acted more like a circus ringleader than an officer of the court during a job discrimination trial that he let devolve into one sideshow after another.

The 4th District Court of Appeal overturned the judge's decision and ordered a new trial, finding the cumulative effect of Brooks' antics so egregious that they undermined a fair trial for two employees of an electronics company who had alleged they were passed over for promotions and later dismissed for complaining about reverse discrimination.

Plaintiffs James Haluck and Michael Litton, former employees of Tustin-based Ricoh Electronics, had been awarded nothing by the jury after a 30-day trial before Brooks. They appealed in 2003.

"It is obvious that much of the judge's conduct was not malicious but rather a misguided attempt to be humorous, and defendants' lawyer played into it, often acting as the straight man," the three-judge panel ruled. "But a courtroom is not the Improv, and the presider's role model is not Judge Judy."

Among the gaffs by Brooks during the proceedings, according to the panel: holding up a homemade sign reading "Overruled" to the jury when the plaintiffs' attorney made objections, and using soccer-like red cards to keep score of objections from both sides.

Attorney Michelle A. Reinglass, who represented the plaintiffs, said she felt vindicated by the appellate decision and was looking forward to going before a new judge in a case that she said became nicknamed "the soap opera trial" in legal circles.

Daniel J. Callahan, who represented Ricoh, said he was shocked by the reversal of a "well-reasoned jury decision." He denied there was any "good-ol'-boy relationship" between the defense and the judge. He plans to appeal.

Brooks, a former prosecutor who became a Superior Court judge in 1998, could not be reached for comment.

He has been scolded by the state judicial commission for demeaning and intimidating a husband and wife involved in a civil case; making prejudicial comments to a Syrian woman involved in a separate property dispute; referring to Latino defendants as "Pedro"; and for characterizing the owners of a mobile home park as "Nazis."

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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