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Friday, May 22, 2015
Deliberations of judicial watchdog
should be public
The California Commission
on Judicial Performance, the
state's judicial watchdog
agency, is made up of judges,
lawyers and members of the
public. They are the judges of
the judges, the sole public
agents charged with
accused of judicial misconduct.
Yet the commission's deliberations are conducted completely under the radar, with no
Tamir Sukkary is an adjunct
professor of political science at
American River College,
City College, San
Joaquin Delta College and
The CJP meets about seven times per year and receives its authority from Article 6,
Section 18 of the state Constitution. The commission's task is to provide oversight and
accountability over California's 1,825 judges. The CJP handles complaints (primarily
from litigants) regarding judicial misconduct, bias and abuses of power. Last year, the
CJP received 1,212 such complaints against judges, court commissioners and
referees. It chose not to take action on 1,039 complaints submitted last year. That's
less than 9 percent.
It's understandable the CJP would not take action on many of the complaints it
receives. In numerous cases, although the litigants are clearly not happy with the
judges' decisions, not enough evidence points to judicial misconduct. In other cases,
the judge made legal errors. In most situations, legal error is not misconduct unless it
involves "bad faith, bias, abuse of authority, disregard for fundamental rights,
intentional disregard of the law or any purpose other than the faithful discharge of
judicial duty" as established in the state Supreme Court's ruling in Oberholzer v. CJP,
20 Cal. 4th 371 (1999). Unfortunately, the only option for cases involving legal error is
to appeal the trial court's ruling. Appeals are expensive and time-consuming.
I recently sent a complaint to the CJP regarding possible judicial misconduct of the
court commissioner in a case. Superior court commissioners are at-will subordinate
judicial officers appointed by, and serving, superior court judges. Since my complaint
was about a commissioner, I had to send my complaint letter, completed form and
documents to the local trial court before I could send them to the CJP. I received a
response from the local court well over two months after I sent in the complaint.
Not satisfied with the local court's response, I sent the complaint and documentation
to the CJP for independent review. Shortly thereafter, the CJP responded with a brief,
impersonal form letter stating they chose not to take any further action in the case in
their meeting. No explanation was offered.
Questions and Comments
Why is the commission operating in such a
secretive fashion? Isn't the commission
supposed to be serving the public?
While a CJP investigation may not have been warranted, it seems to me the CJP
owes it to the public to briefly explain why the commission chooses not to take further
action on complaints.
Subsequently, I found out from my state senator's office that the CJP's meetings are
neither open to the public, nor subject to the California Public Records Act, Brown Act
or Freedom of Information Act. Not even the CJP clerical staff is allowed to attend
during deliberations. Why is the commission operating in such a secretive fashion?
Isn't the commission supposed to be serving the public?
The CJP's website states, "The commission's mandate is to protect the public,
enforce rigorous standards of judicial conduct and maintain public confidence in the
integrity and independence of the judicial system." What inspires public confidence in
a democratic system is openness and transparency. Sending off brief, impersonal form
letters offering no explanation for the CJP's decisions, holding private meetings, and
closing off information access certainly does not inspire public trust and leaves the
average citizen wondering why the need for a secrecy, more characteristic of
authoritarian regimes. Surely we can and must do better than this.
Tamir Sukkary is an adjunct professor of political science at American River
College, Sacramento City College, San Joaquin Delta College and Sierra College.
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