A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who made an "offensive and inappropriate" reference to the Ku Klux Klan while presiding over a robbery trial involving two African American defendants was publicly admonished Wednesday by a state agency overseeing judges' discipline.
Judge Harvey Giss of the San Fernando Courthouse made the comments in July during an off-the-record discussion with attorneys about a possible plea agreement in the case, according to the state Commission on Judicial Performance.
Neither of the defendants was present, but a family member was in the courtroom, according to the commission. Giss told the commission he remarked that the only thing that would make the defendants agree to a plea was for the judge to "come out in a white sheet and a pointy white hat," according to the panel's statement of facts.
Two days later, when the defense asked the judge to recuse himself because of the remark, Giss conceded that he had made a "bad statement" but added, "People don't have a sense of humor anymore," according to the statement of facts.
Giss, a former deputy district attorney who has been on the Superior Court bench since April 2001, eventually withdrew from the case.
An attorney for Giss said Wednesday that the judge had "made an unfortunate comment off the record and in jest" in response to the attorneys on the case asking him to get the defendants to enter a plea.
"He regrets that the comment was made, since while he intended to emphasize how impossible it was for him to do what counsel had requested, he should have chosen a different way to make his point," Edith Matthai said.
One of the defense attorneys, deputy public defender David Fujimoto, said the mother of a defendant who was in the audience was upset by the remark and became concerned that her son might not receive a fair trial.
"A judicial officer is supposed to be beyond reproach, and something like that will put a question in people's minds," he said.
Fujimoto also disputed Giss' account, saying the attorneys did not ask the judge to become involved in a plea discussion.
The case, which involved alleged armed robberies at recycling centers, ultimately went to trial before a different judge, according to Fujimoto.
The commission concluded that the judge's comments constituted failure to refrain from speech that could be perceived as bias or prejudice, failure to be dignified and courteous to litigants and lawyers, and failure to avoid impropriety.
"Judge Giss should have known that his insensitive courtroom reference to a history of violence towards persons of the defendants' ancestry, whether intended to make a valid point regarding his role as a judge or in jest, was offensive and inappropriate," the commission found.