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Critics want to bench Judge Manuel L. Real

He is 85 and has sat on the U.S. District Court bench in L.A. since 1966. He wields his gavel despite complaints about his imperious behavior and frequent reversals by appellate courts.

August 16, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Attorney Gary Dubin was in a Honolulu hospital, sedated and suffering from depression after the death of his son, when U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real had him handcuffed and taken to court -- still in his hospital gown -- to answer charges of failing to file tax returns.

Real allowed him to send for clothes but refused to postpone the hearing, recalled Dubin, who had to defend himself in a medicated fog without his case files. Judged guilty by Real after a two-day bench trial, Dubin spent 19 1/2 months in federal prison, while his home went into foreclosure and his credit was ruined by identity thieves.

He achieved a measure of vindication years later when the IRS sent him a letter saying he had not violated any tax-filing laws. But he said his encounter with Real caused him professional and economic suffering from which he is still recovering.

Dubin filed a complaint with judicial authorities, one of dozens in which the 85-year-old judge's behavior has been brought to the attention of judicial disciplinary panels.

The Judicial Council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals examined 89 cases in which Real's conduct was challenged, though it is not clear if Dubin's was among them because the panel does not disclose details of its investigations. In December, the panel said the judge's behavior was problematic but lacked the "willfulness" required for disciplinary sanctions, adding that in the future, Real should be "especially vigilant concerning the subject matter of these complaints."

Some judicial analysts predicted then that the Los Angeles-based Real would take the face-saving step of opting for senior status, going into a semi-retirement for which he has been eligible since 1985. But he remains an active judge with a full caseload, stirring fresh complaints of imperious behavior as well as a high number of reversals by appellate courts.

On July 17, the 9th Circuit overturned Real's acquittal of a state corrections officer who had been convicted by a jury of assaulting two prisoners. The appeals court reinstated the jury verdict and sent the case back for sentencing, ordering that a different judge handle the proceedings. That was at least the 10th time Real has endured that rare form of appeals court reproach.

Still pending is an effort to remove Real from a case involving a trust fund containing seized assets of the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Real has provided no accounting of how $5 million from the fund was disbursed while it was under his control or of what happened to an additional $20 million in investment proceeds. Real issued a half-page accounting of the fund's remaining $34.7 million, saying, "That takes care of the matter."

Groups laying claim to the money have appealed to the 9th Circuit seeking reassignment of the case to another judge, said Jay Ziegler of the Los Angeles firm of Buchalter Nemer, among those representing the claimants.

The claimants' arguments for reassignment are explained in a sealed brief filed with the appeals court in mid-July and include concern over "the failures in accounting," Ziegler said. But he declined to say more about why his firm wants Real off its case.

Some former colleagues come to the judge's defense, saying he is the victim of disgruntled attorneys.

"I think he's done everything he can do to try to be fair to defendants. I've seen him go out of his way to try to make sure people don't fall back into the same problems they had before," said attorney John Resich, a former law clerk for Real. "I think he's being unfairly judged by a few people who had negative results and feel he is not being fair to them."

But some of his most persistent critics are harsh in their assessments.

Beverly Hills attorney Ronald Richards, in arguing unsuccessfully to have Real removed from one of his cases, said the judge's repeated threats to hold lawyers in contempt for disagreeing with him has induced "a generalized pattern of cowering by attorneys who appear in this district court."

Harland Braun, a Los Angeles attorney who has sparred with Real for decades, said that "going into a case, he picks the side he wants to win and then does everything he can to destroy the other side. He is notorious for ripping defendants apart."

Braun recently tried an end run around the 9th Circuit Judicial Council, which normally handles misconduct complaints, filing a petition that will go directly to a three-judge 9th Circuit panel instead of the disciplinary body. Braun claims Real prejudiced a jury by calling his client a liar and suppressing exculpatory evidence.

His client, a Japanese exchange student who Braun says was unwittingly enmeshed in a fraud scheme by her boyfriend, was wrongly convicted, briefly imprisoned and scarred for life as a released criminal now that she's back in her homeland, Braun said.

In a rare response to a complaint, Real told the Los Angeles Daily Journal that Braun was "delusional" in his perceptions of the judge's handling of the case.

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