Without a Greta Thunberg for assistance, the California Auditor’s best efforts to protect the public from bad California judges seem well on their way to failure


16 november 2019 Greta Thunberg arriving - Private Eye No. 1503 August-September 2019 COTIN.org
If only that were true — for victims of judicial misconduct in California ( Drawing in Private Eye, Issue 1503, 23 August – 5 September 2019 )

All the signs so far suggest that COTIN’s pessimism is more than justified — about the likelihood that the deliberately lax, inefficient body charged with disciplining corrupt, incompetent and misbehaving California judges will be reformed urgently, if at all. This site’s gloomy spring and early summer prognostications on that topic followed the publication on 25 April of the California Auditor’s minutely detailed exposé of the workings of that body — the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP). 

Here are links to essential reading for anyone who wishes to know exactly how the California judiciary has since been evading the Auditor’s diligent attempt to correct injustice, through tactics that fit the judges’ historic tendency to rank ‘protecting their own’ above the public interest:

Shielding judges from public complaints and criticism (but not the public, from bad judges) was immediately given the highest priority

The Auditor, Elaine Howle, has no means of directly or semi-directly translating her organisation’s recommendations for reforming the CJP into action. She has to accomplish that through Sacramento politicians — that is, win the support of members of the California State Assembly. According to The Reporter, in a  29 June article,

A state legislative committee earlier this month issued several proposals, including an amendment to the state Constitution, that would make investigations of alleged judicial misconduct more fair to judges and, at the same time, increase public awareness of a commission that hears complaints about judges and disciplines them, … [ COTIN’s highlighting ]

In view of the seriousness of the wrongs in dire, urgent need of righting — and given that the Auditor’s report was related to the mistreatment of litigants by rogue judges, rather than the reverse — should the committee have made an issue of the sensitivities of the judiciary, at this time? 

Somehow, the CJP failed to meet its deadline for applying for the money it needs to start implementing the Auditor’s recommendations for its reform

According to The San Jose Mercury News on 15 July, in ‘California’s troubled judicial misconduct watchdog may miss key deadlines to improve: Problems could undermine public trust in court system’:

This past April, the much-anticipated California State Audit reviewing the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) exposed a crisis in the state’s only judicial oversight agency, which allows for severe judicial misconduct to persist. In order to enact the changes set forth in the audit, the CJP should have requested funding from the State by the June deadline. However, they missed it, using, as executive director Kathleen Russell stated, a  “classic stalling tactic” to continue resisting efforts to change its practices. 

The second stage of California legislators’ investigation of precisely what needs to be done about judicial misconduct was somehow postponed to 2020

In a conventional prelude to action by lawmakers, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) held a hearing in Sacramento on 12 June to discuss the Auditor’s recommendations. It was set for continuation in October, but that did not happen. Katie Guthrie in the office of the committee’s chairman, Rudy Salas, said on 15 October that no date had been set for the next stage of JLAC’s discussion of the CJP, but that she might be able to answer that question for COTIN in December or after 6 January, when the Assembly reconvenes. 

By means explained in earlier entries on this site, California’s judiciary has a centuries-long record for going to extraordinary lengths to frustrate attempts by voters to bring it back into line with the state’s ideals of justice. ( See: ‘… the long-running feud about mythical ‘unpublished’ opinions’)   

What is the solution? 

Probably, the involvement of the youngest California voters.

Mark Zuckerberg, and the WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, whose blogging platform’s home page proclaims that it ‘powers 34% of the internet’  (not excluding COTIN) — were both born in 1984. Their vintage makes their achievements especially astounding, and that is in keeping with the apparent trend for the world’s most effective revolutionaries — whether driven by greed or pure conscience — to be getting younger every year. But if Mark and Matt were computer systems, they would have been consigned to crematoriums decades ago. This would be true if they were not 35 but 25 years old — or the same age as the IT system that the Auditor found the CJP using to process complaints about judges by lawyers and litigants in 2018. As noted on this site last summer, this has meant that instead of accepting complaint forms through email or via a web site, the CJP was using Californians’ tax dollars to pay staff for retyping postal submissions from complainants into its prehistoric IT marvel, keystroke by keystroke.

There is no way to interpret that other than as proof of the lengths to which the judges’ disciplinary authority has gone to avoid disciplining judges. 

Surely California needs a firebreathing activist, an equivalent of 16 year-old Greta Thunberg — nine years younger than the CJP computer system — to emerge from the populace and get to work?

The Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) in Northern California, founded and run by Kathleen Russell, has been among the most vigorous and prominent campaigners against judicial misconduct in the state — and is widely seen as the principal prod responsible for the official audit of the CJP. 

Child custody rulings outnumber all other cases of alleged misconduct in which the CJE intervenes to assist litigants who believe that they have been hurt by those decisions. Too many are horrific and heart-stopping. It could be appropriate for some of the older children — teenagers — in such cases to model themselves on Ms Thunberg and draw attention to the harm that can be inflicted on families and individuals from judicial benches whose occupants are demonstrably guilty of bias, incompetence, failure to follow the law, or all three.

The September issue of Wired magazine offered this compelling argument for their involvement:

In general, kids start waving signs when adults are slow to act, and, according to Alcides Velasquez, who researches social media and political activism and participation at the University of Kansas, there is a perception among adults that children will be more effective at trumpeting future-looking messages. (Also, as political commentator Tucker Carlson pointed out, it’s harder to justify eviscerating a child for political gain.) That’s only the most cynical piece of Thunberg’s appeal, though. “We learn from observing people who are similar to us,” he says. “If you want young people to get involved, showing them that another teenager can do this type of stuff will be very empowering.” He also notes that youth demonstrations, like the climate marches Thunberg and others have led, put direct pressure on reelection-minded public officials: “They’re going to be voting in three, four, five years, and politicians will be feeling the pressure.”


History says that little will be done about the California Auditor’s damning report on the state’s job-shirking discipliner of bad judges. Clue: the long-running feud about mythical ‘unpublished’ opinions

Clip 1 from the California Auditor's report on the Commission on Judicial Performance, 25 April 2019, COTIN.org

Clip 2 from the California Auditor's report on the Commission on Judicial Performance, 25 april 2019 COTIN.org
Clips from the 25 April 2019 report by the California Auditor on the Commission on Judicial Performance. The second is from a section about staff who cannot operate or maintain their 25 year-old computer system — in their office at the northern end of Silicon Valley

Transparency and a wholesale, top-to-bottom restructuring are the chief recommendations for California’s Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) by Elaine Howle, the state’s Auditor — in her 25 April report card that adds up to a big red ‘F’ for fail. Because the CJP acquired a new director at a late stage of the audit, in 2017, there is some hope of remedial action and reform, but the historical record shows that judges excel at evading public control.

The five-year audit of the way the CJP treats complaints about judges not behaving or doing their work as judges should revealed — among other things — that:

  • From 2013-14 to 2017-18, the CJP ‘closed at intake about 85 per cent of the almost 6,000 complaints it closed.’ This means that they were tossed out without investigation. 
  • The CJP’s complaint-investigators failed to delve adequately into about a third of the cases that the Auditor examined in detail, ‘even though these investigations involved serious allegations.’
  • California judges shield each other from censure and discipline. Though California voters passed a proposition twenty-five years ago that was designed to make this harder, by ‘increasing the public’s involvement with judicial discipline,’ the CJP still hands the task of hearing evidence of judicial misconduct to members of the same tribe, ‘a panel of three judges — known as special masters.’

No summary on this site or anywhere else could be an adequate substitute for reading the Auditor’s crisp presentation of her findings, which — despite the unavoidably bloodless officialese — is liable to make a reader’s skin creep. 

For instance, in the section about the CJP’s failure to look for patterns in following up on reports of misbehaving judges, the report highlights the case of the Commission receiving twelve complaints in less than ten years ‘about the demeanour and bias’ of a particular judge. In reviewing the fifth of those complaints — that the judge ‘had displayed poor demeanour and and showed favouritism during a court proceeding’ — the CJP’s investigator interviewed only the complainant and a single witness before he decided that the allegations could not be proved. The CJP ‘closed the complaint without issuing discipline.’ Worse, this CJP complaint-investigator agreed that ‘he could have expanded the scope of the review,’ which would have made it possible for him ‘to determine whether a systemic problem with the judge’s behaviour existed.’ But he told the Auditor’s team that he could not remember why he did not take that obvious step — yet was still certain that he was not guilty of any lapse in diligence.

Most astounding of all — given that the CJP’s office is in San Francisco, at the northern limit of Silicon Valley — the computer system that this body uses to manage cases is nearly 25 years old, and therefore incapable of accepting electronic submissions of allegations against judges by lawyers and litigants. The IT expert who created it for the Commission retired in 2014 without leaving ‘any written instructions for operating and maintaining the system.’

Gently castigating the CJP for its failure to update its tools — and restricting communications from complainants to snail mail — the Auditor noted that if the Commission were to accept digital submissions, its vintage case management system would require its staff to enter these into it manually, keystroke by keystroke. The result? ‘[A]s long as it relies on its outdated system, CJP will be significantly hindered from increasing its accessibility to the public.’

In whose interests could it be to under-equip the CJP so woefully? Powerful people with sharp brains bent on ensuring that the Commission is only barely capable of executing the tasks for which taxpayers pay it handsomely.

Impressively, the Auditor’s report was released with the CJP’s response to a final draft of it — and Elaine Howle’s reply to that reaction (on the same web page).  Their bristly exchange prefigures the colossal struggle on the horizon between representatives of the public interest and the California judiciary. If the past is any guide, the judges will win — succeed in ensuring that the CJP remains virtually toothless — even if the Auditor’s office gets the support it needs from legislators in Sacramento. The comprehensive structural overhaul Elaine Howle recommends for the CJP cannot happen without an amendment to the state’s constitution. That can only be accomplished by vote, in the legislature.

Answering the CJP’s claim that it had ‘fully cooperated with the audit,’ the Auditor made it clear that the Commission had only done so after crippling this review for nearly two years by initiating a legal action intended to obstruct or kill it.  Of course the CJP does not believe that it needs reorganisation, or that the Auditor was right to conclude that its present, ‘unitary’ structure is problematic, even though this means that the same group of people conducts investigations into charges of judges doing their jobs poorly and decides whether or not they deserve punishment, and by what means. With extraordinary tact, the Auditor refrained from spelling out what makes that grouping-together undesirable. It is essentially this: that it makes it too easy to shield bad judges from chastisement by conveniently failing to discover evidence to support charges against them; or by declining to look for it at all. 

Rejecting the Commission’s argument that ‘the California Supreme Court has consistently upheld the unitary structure of CJP as a judicial discipline agency,’ the Auditor pointed out that ’17 states have adopted a bicameral structure for their judicial oversight commissions,’ and that ‘the American Bar Association’s model rules for judicial disciplinary enforcement’ prescribe precisely such a form of organisation ‘that separates investigating and adjudicative functions.’ 

The CJP did agree to improve its transparency and modernise its antiquated operations without making any specific commitments, such as whether it would or would not be following the recommendations that it hold meetings open to the public and enable electronic submissions by complainants.

Ominously, though, it warned that ‘[t]here has never been a successful challenge to CJP’s structure and authority,’ — a history which, it claimed, ‘establishes that there is no problem …’.

The California judiciary is highly skilled at batting away demands for reform by voters and legislators, and at neutralising legal statutes imposing new rules for its functioning.

Anyone interested in this record need look no further than a topic that this site has touched on before — so-called ‘unpublished’ opinions, or rationales for decisions by courts of appeal. An appellate opinion explains exactly how a panel of judges arrived at their decision and chose to apply the relevant law, in determining the fate of an appeal against a lower court’s  judgment.

But because too many judges would rather not take responsibility for any of that, branches of the U.S. judiciary have for decades insisted on labelling as ‘unpublished’ the texts of too many appellate opinions  that are, in fact, widely circulated, and accessible anywhere on the internet, at no charge, almost immediately after they are issued.  The designation has crucial implications . Among these is that it more or less absolves loftier courts of the responsibility to vet them — effectively insulating lower-ranking judges from being held accountable and punishable for what they do.

For how long have judges been using this form of deception to conceal defective or corrupt reasoning and disregard for the law they are supposed to follow? In his eye-opening historical treatise on the subject — going back to the mid-19th century, and restricted to California  — Rafi Moghadam has shown how the practice is only the latest ploy for averting accountability, after the state’s judiciary could no longer dodge the task of issuing written opinions. In 1854, state lawmakers introduced new law requiring that the opinions of courts of appeal at every level be delivered in writing. The state’s highest court ‘responded by invalidating the statute,’ and ‘held that the legislature was without authority to require the judicial branch to provide written reasons for its decisions.’ Then, in 1879, ‘the voters of this state disapproved opinionless judgments …’. 

Eventually, the California judiciary adopted the ruse of ‘unpublished’ opinions — a decision committed to writing, but of limited value for ensuring accountability because ‘casting doubt on the soundness of its reasoning’ without taking anyone to task for that is what its tricky labelling accomplishes.

This device is still being used in the 21st century. In her contribution to the debate — ‘Legal Fiction of the “Unpublished” Kind: The Surreal Paradox of No-Citation Rules and the Ethical Duty of Candor’  — J. Lyn Entrikin Goering noted in 2005 that ‘eighty percent of the decisions issued each year by the thirteen federal courts of appeal are designated as “unpublished” or “nonprecedential’’.’ That number has since soared to 88 per cent.**

Elaine Howle, the California Auditor, said in her rebuttal of the Commission’s objections to her audit: ’We look forward to reviewing evidence of how CJP implements our recommendations.’ 

With supernatural luck — and enough pressure from the public and valiant lobbying organisations, such as the Center for Judicial Excellence  — this site might have something significant of that nature to report.

But any readers waiting for it would be ill-advised to hold their breath.

** in the twelve months to 30 September 2018, according to government statistics on U.S. courts, to which Professor Entrikin was kind enough to send COTIN a link.