Category Archives: Biography

Benjamin B. Wagner

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Benjamin B. Wagner in California

Benjamin B. Wagner: U.S. Attorney

Benjamin B. Wagner, as the U.S. Attorney for California’s Eastern District, finds himself at “ground zero” of the real estate crime wave that has swept the United States. There is no easy way to address the shady schemes that banks only encouraged with their lax lending practices. And prosecution is at best a poor substitute for effective regulation.

Benjamin B. Wagner and the Mortgage Fraud in California

By Marilyn Berlin Snell. She is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist.

Wagner, 50, served 18 years in the Sacramento office as an AUSA before President Obama appointed him to the top job in November 2009. Ironically, he’d begun his career on Wall Street, doing corporate finance work at New York’s Cahill Gordon & Reindel.

“There’s not a day that goes by since I came to the U.S. Attorney’s Office that I’ve regretted the decision,” Wagner says in an interview. “We’re here to do the right thing, so there’s a moral clarity to this job that’s rare in the legal profession.” (…)

Faced with this enormous task, Wagner appears both resolute and resigned. “I’ve never viewed my role as only being society’s avenger, out there to sweep the riff-raff off the streets,” he says. But he adds, “Standards got so loose and people talked so openly about cutting corners that I think the sort of normal inhibitions to fraud began to erode.” (…)

“I was down in Merced a few months ago in an area that had been built up, and it looked like a war zone,” Wagner says. “There were a few houses that were lived in, and a whole bunch that had been foreclosed or that had fallen through in mid-construction and never [were] finished.”

For federal prosecutors, figuring out the hallmarks of a good mortgage fraud case involved “a bit of a learning curve,” Wagner admits. “Until recently, real estate fraud was not something that we were deeply involved in,” he says. “For the most part, the transactions are regulated by state officials. There’s the Department of Real Estate, the licensing board for real estate brokers and appraisers – those are all state functions.”

The most recent sweep by Wagner and the DOJ Task Force – Operation Stolen Dreams, between March and June 2010 – produced 823 federal indictments, charging 1,517 defendants nationwide. “During that same time period, we got 391 guilty pleas or convictions and 245 individuals were sentenced,” he says. (…)

“We are not market regulators. We prosecute criminals. We have to find cases we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a unanimous jury, as opposed to making assessments of the state of the industry.”

Once again defending the limits of his office, Wagner says his prosecutors pursue a realistic goal: “We’re trying to at least rein in mortgage fraud so that people don’t think they can just act with impunity. But we’re not going to litigate ourselves out of this crisis.”

I was heartsick by the time I finished this project. Because while I was so impressed with Wagner’s dedication and intelligence, I also realized that he was only chipping away at the edges of a system that had been so thoroughly corrupted by fast money.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye in California

Tani Cantil-Sakauye Biography

By Gerald F. Uelmen. He is a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. Luci Buda, Class of 2012, compiled the data for this article.(2011)

The Gibson Court. The Traynor Court. The Wright Court. The Bird Court. The Lucas Court. The George Court. For 70 years, we’ve been identifying the California Supreme Court by the surname of its chief justice. But the tag never went past two syllables. If we keep with tradition, we all have to learn to pronounce the six syllables in Cantil-Sakauye (note: sounds like kahn-TEEL sock-ah-OOH-way). Our gracious new chief might be OK with “the Tani Court,” but that’s much too flippant. We can’t just call it the California Supreme Court, so I’ll opt for the Cantil-Sakauye Court. The sooner we all can pronounce it, the better: She is planning to stay for at least 12 years.

Each of the California chief justices has made a unique contribution to California justice. Some were most notable for their administrative ability, some for scholarly jurisprudence, and some for resolute independence. At midyear, just six months into her tenure on the court, it is too early to predict where Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye will leave her mark.

Though the chief has participated in the decisions in 28 cases, she has authored only two opinions. People v. Castaneda (51 Cal. 4th 1292 (2011)) was a routine death penalty affirmance, the last of 26 such orders issued by the court in the yearlong period I review (July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011). I count it as a unanimous decision, even though Justice Joyce L. Kennard filed one of those “concurring and dissenting” opinions that drive me crazy. (I adamantly maintain that if you “concur fully in the judgment,” your opinion should not be labeled a dissent. A concurring opinion can disagree with the reasoning of the majority; if the disagreement does not affect the outcome, it is still not a dissent.)

In Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye’s other opinion the seven justices unanimously reversed a Court of Appeals ruling that game wardens must have reasonable suspicion to stop a motorist and search the vehicle for illegal game (People v. Maikhio, 51 Cal. 4th 1074 (2011)). The high court ruled that such searches can be justified as administrative in nature. The chief’s opinion is excellent: clear, concise, and well reasoned. If this is a sample of what’s to come, we can all rejoice.

Though it is somewhat premature to assess Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye’s disagreement rates, 4 of the 28 cases in which she participated drew dissents from Justices Kennard, Kathryn H. Werdegar, or Carlos R. Moreno. Because the chief justice consistently sided with the majority, her rate of agreement with Justices Marvin R. Baxter, Ming W. Chin, and Carol A. Corrigan is 100 percent so far.

She has maintained an arduous speaking schedule, and nearly everyone who meets her is impressed with her candor and openness. She displayed impressive political skills in engineering the legislative defeat of AB 1208, which would have shifted authority from the Judicial Council back to lower courts to manage their budgets. But California’s 2011-12 budget whacked another $350 million from the courts, and it will be impossible to handle an additional cut of that magnitude without some significant court closures. The chief has announced ambitious plans to reorganize the Judicial Council, and the retirement of director William C. Vickery will provide an opportunity to reshape the Administrative Office of the Courts as well.

Carlos R. Moreno

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Carlos R. Moreno in California

Carlos R. Moreno Biography

By Gerald F. Uelmen. He is a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. Luci Buda, Class of 2012, compiled the data for this article.

After ten years on the court, Justice Moreno left in a blaze of glory, authoring what I thought was the best opinion of the year, and dissenting in what I thought were the two worst decisions of the year. In Pineda v. Williams-Sonoma Stores Inc. (51 Cal. 4th 524 (2011)), he wrote for a unanimous court in ruling that the state’s Song-Beverly Credit Card Act prohibits merchants from requesting and recording a credit card customer’s ZIP code.

In two separate cases, Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal had unanimously concluded that a ZIP code alone does not constitute personal identification information, allowing defendant merchants to record customers’ ZIP codes in a database used for marketing. In its independent review of statutory construction, the supreme court construed the Song-Beverly Act broadly and in so doing addressed the misuse of personal identification information for marketing purposes. Though merchants are free to demand identification from credit card users, they are not permitted to record data gleaned from the identification presented. (You still have to enter a ZIP code to use your credit card to purchase gasoline at the pump-but that’s to verify you are the authorized user of the card, and the information is not recorded for use in marketing.)

Justice Moreno also authored one of the best dissents of the year in protesting the majority’s ruling in Moore v. Superior Court (50 Cal. 4th 802 (2010)), which held that due process does not require that someone facing confinement as a sexually violent predator (SVP) be competent to understand the proceedings. It is fascinating to compare Moreno’s application of the four-part balancing test of People v. Allen (44 Cal. 4th 843 (2008)) with the application of that same standard in Justice Baxter’s majority opinion. If one begins with the premise that requiring competency would endanger public safety and render the whole SVP scheme unworkable, it really skews the balance. Moreno, joined by Justice Kennard, adeptly exposes the flaws in the majority’s premise.

Justice Moreno also joined the magnificent dissenting opinion of Justice Werdegar in People v. Diaz (51 Cal. 4th 84 (2011)). The majority opinion, by Justice Chin, permits police to probe the text messages on a cell phone seized at the time of a defendant’s arrest at their leisure, without a search warrant. Werdegar – recognizing that the search of data stored on a contemporary smartphone or handheld computer presents a massive intrusion into reasonable expectations of privacy – would require a warrant for such a search. Justice Kennard, in concurring with the majority, concludes that directly applicable U.S. Supreme Court precedents compel rejection of the claim that a warrant is needed. But Werdegar cited high court precedent to suggest that stare decisis should not be used “to justify the continuance of an unconstitutional police practice … in a case that is so easily distinguished from the decisions that arguably compel it.” (51 Cal. 4th at 120, citing Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710, 1722 (2009).)

A bill pending in the Legislature (SB 914) would require a warrant to search a smartphone, but even if enacted it would not provide an exclusionary remedy.

Steve Cooley

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Steve Cooley in California

He has been the Los Angeles County District Attorney.

Steve Cooley Biography and Problems

by Zachary Winnick (2011)

Embroiled in union-busting charges, the Los Angeles district attorney could face a tough reelection campaign.

Steve Cooley can’t catch a break. In November 2010 he lost the race for California’s attorney general by a razor-thin margin, and now the Los Angeles County district attorney faces federal civil charges that he retaliated against union leaders and chilled participation in a nascent labor organization for deputy DAs.

Set for September 2011, the trial will likely impact next year’s race for L.A. County district attorney, since a number of the parties named in the lawsuit are running for the seat. Details of the dispute read like the script of a network television legal drama.

Take Robert Dver, a veteran prosecutor. Dver sought the advice of Jacquelyn Lacey, a close friend and a top official at the DA’s office, before deciding whether to join the bargaining team of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) in 2008. According to testimony he gave to the L.A. County Employee Relations Commission (ERCOM) before the federal suit was filed, Lacey warned Dver that Cooley disliked the newly certified prosecutors’ union and its then-president, Steve Ipsen.

Undeterred, Dver approached Cooley for guidance. “Cooley is a friend of mine,” Dver testified. “He was at my kids’ bar mitzvahs.”

But the top prosecutor told Dver that the union was going to be a disaster, and encouraged him to join two other deputy DAs in efforts to undermine the organization, Dver testified. Cooley voiced particular disdain for Ipsen, calling him a “crook” and telling Dver that anyone who worked with him was “contaminated.”
Cooley summed up his message to Dver in his own testimony before ERCOM in April 2010: “I told him if you sleep with shit, you smell like shit.”

Nonetheless, Dver didn’t turn against the union, and six months after his conversation with Cooley he was transferred to a less desirable post. Ipsen also was reassigned and received poor performance evaluations after he engaged in union-related activities.

Dver’s treatment is at the heart of the federal suit against Cooley and other DA officials, as are claims of retaliatory transfers against two other veteran prosecutors, as well as union leaders. (Dver has not joined the suit, stating he’s not a litigious person, although his ERCOM testimony features prominently in the complaint.)
Meanwhile, the DA’s office, denies that any of the transfers were improper. “If you really delve into it at all, it’s clear that the transfers had nothing to do with the union or union activities,” says Brian Hershman, a partner at Jones Day hired by Cooley to defend him.

But a district judge, issuing a preliminary injunction against the DA last March, pointed to “explicit retaliation by Defendants that is both striking and rampant.” And a November decision in the ERCOM proceedings identified “a deliberate and thinly disguised campaign” by the DA’s office to “destroy” ADDA through a “pattern of antiunion conduct so overt and vehement, it harkens back to an earlier and less civil time in employer-employee relations.”
Regardless of how the case shakes out in court, the clash will continue on the political battlefield. Defendants Lacey, who is now the office’s number two official, and Mario Trujillo, head deputy at it’s Bellflower branch, have already announced they’ll be candidates in the upcoming district attorney election. Cooley may yet run for a fourth term, and Ipsen is rumored to be throwing his hat in the ring.

The lawsuit has already influenced the race for the top job in the country’s largest prosecutor’s office. Deputy DA Danette Meyers, a candidate who is not a party to the suit, has raised labor relations as an issue in the campaign.
“I’m a big union person,” Meyers told LA Weekly in January, after announcing her candidacy. “I wouldn’t run around union-busting.”

Ronald M. George

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Ronald M. George in California

Ronald M. George Legacy

He steps down in January 2011 after 14 years as chief justice of the California Supreme Court. As a jurist, George will long be remembered for two opinions that he authored: One legalized same-sex marriages in California; the other upheld Proposition 8, a voter initiative that prohibited such marriages. But at least as memorable as anything the chief ever wrote was the political genius he exercised in transforming the administration of the state’s trial courts in the face of stiff opposition from local judges. George’s tenure as chief justice will be a tough act to follow.

Ronald M. George in the California Supreme Court

By Claire Cooper, a freelance writer in Oakland, covered legal affairs for the Sacramento Bee for 25 years.

Through political skill and force of personality, newly retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George engineered the consolidation of California’s trial courts. But some judges don’t like the result.

When Ronald M. George was a Los Angeles trial judge in the mid-1980s, he would occasionally preside over a law and motion calendar. The department’s senior research attorney at the time, Martha M. Escutia, remembers his engaging personality. “For a judge to be that friendly was something new to us,” says Escutia, a former Democratic state assemblywoman and state senator from Los Angeles.

A decade later, when George became California’s 27th chief justice, that kind of goodwill paid off. George soon developed a vision for a robustly independent judicial branch, and he was tireless in pushing an agenda to achieve it. To a remarkable extent his vision has become reality, thanks to scores of people—Escutia among them—who responded to his combination of personality and persistence.

When the state assumed responsibility for the formerly county-funded trial courts in 1997, Escutia carried the bill as chairwoman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Five years later, when the Legislature authorized the state to take over trial court facilities as well, she carried that bill as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

To credit George exclusively for the reforms instituted during his 14 years as chief justice would be unfair: He carried on the work of former Chief Justices Phil S. Gibson, Rose Bird, and Malcolm Lucas. That he was in charge during the payoff made all the difference, though. Neither of his immediate predecessors, Bird or Lucas, had been popular in Sacramento. But George was respected, both as a judge and as an administrator.

“It’s hard to overestimate the influence of the person of the chief,” says Lloyd Connelly, a Sacramento Superior Court judge and former Democratic assemblyman. George, he says, “was well-respected by [then—Assembly Speaker] Willie Brown at the same time he was respected by Pete Wilson”—the governor who appointed George to the state Supreme Court, later elevated him to chief justice, and signed into law his most important administrative initiatives.

It also mattered that George simply wasn’t Malcolm Lucas, who as chief became persona non grata in the state Capitol Building from the moment he upheld legislative term limits in 1991. In a biting opinion, Lucas referred to a compelling need to protect the state “against an entrenched, dynastic legislative bureaucracy.” (Legislature v. Eu, 54 Cal. 3d 492, 520 (1991).) Never again was he invited to deliver what had been an annual state-of-the-judiciary address before a joint legislative session.

George had signed that term-limits opinion as an associate justice, but the lawmakers didn’t seem to notice. On May 15, 1996—just two weeks after he took the oath as chief—George addressed a joint legislative session on the state of the judiciary.

While Lucas had seemed aloof and intimidating, George was accessible and direct. Almost immediately he set out to visit the courts of all 58 counties to hear firsthand about the concerns of the bench, bar, and legal community. He assigned himself to Los Angeles’s children’s court to participate in Adoption Saturday. Invited to preside at one of the adoptions, he enjoyed it so much that he performed about ten more—plus a mock adoption for one boy’s dog.

Occasionally, when his presence at the Capitol was likely to alter the political dynamics of a stalled courts bill, he would pop over on short notice for a face-to-face talk with a lawmaker or the governor. And at the start of each legislative session, George and his top staff would sit down for two days of individual meetings with the leadership and with the chairs and vice-chairs of the judiciary and budget committees.

“People really cared that he would take the time to do that,” says Ray LeBov, the state Judicial Council’s director of governmental affairs during George’s first eight years as chief justice. “Some would actually say what an honor it was to have him in the office talking to them in that way.”

Nathan Barankin, then legislative director for Bill Lockyer, the Senate’s president pro tem at the time, says that George “saw the Legislature as a partner for achieving his objectives for the courts. The results are … he got things done.”

Of course, none of the process was simple. Transforming the funding and administration of the California courts involved massive shifts of money, property, and power. As George pushed for centralization and coordination, others pulled to preserve local autonomy. Among the chief’s fiercest adversaries were his former colleagues on the Los Angeles Superior Court, who had political clout both in their county and in Sacramento.

Second District Court of Appeal Justice Arthur Gilbert recalls that everyone expected that George would be sympathetic to his home court when he became chief justice. But George had other plans. “I’m the chief for all the judges,” the new chief said.

More than 14 years later, although some significant opposition to his agenda remains, George’s legacy is evident throughout California—from the powerful Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in San Francisco to the Long Beach Court Building that will be constructed using innovative public-private financing.

George says his administrative initiatives were driven by the desire to create “a true co-equal independent branch of government … a structure for judges to do their jobs.” But the reforms were motivated as much by necessity as by lofty ideals.

George’s first major priority—state funding of the trial courts—was essential to free them in parts of California from reliance on unpredictable county revenues and county supervisors. In counties with scarce resources it might take five years or more to get a civil case to trial. There were years when some county courts would have shut down entirely had the Judicial Council—the state courts’ governing body, appointed and chaired by the chief justice—not appealed to the Legislature for emergency appropriations.

Even so, winning passage of a trial-court funding bill was a multiyear effort. Once he became chief justice, George worked behind the scenes, meeting with legislators in person and conferring with them by phone, reassuring court and county leaders who feared the changes. He also sat down with representatives of the public employee unions.

Most superior court judges in Los Angeles were adamantly opposed to the switch to state funding, which would require them to compete with 57 other county court systems for appropriations. They preferred lobbying county supervisors for their annual budget rather than court administrators in San Francisco or lawmakers in Sacramento. Los Angeles supervisors, located just a short walk across the Civic Center Mall, had traditionally supported a strong court system. It also helped that in Los Angeles (as in some other counties), the supervisors’ own salaries and benefits were indexed to the compensation they authorized for their judges.

In the end, the resisting judges were mollified by provisions written into the bill. One assured the local courts of continued administrative autonomy. Another expressed the Legislature’s intent that “no personnel employed in the court system as of July 1, 1997, shall have their salary or benefits reduced as a result of this act.”

The biggest issue for the unions was collective bargaining on noneconomic issues—they wanted the court-funding bill to guarantee it. Lockyer was on their side, but Governor Wilson wouldn’t sign a bill with such a guarantee. William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the AOC, saw a way to break the impasse: Instead of inserting the bargaining provision into the bill, the Judicial Council would adopt it as a rule of court. Once the unions agreed to the plan, Lockyer went along.

“The chief took heat for doing this by rule, but you could probably give most credit to Vickrey for pushing that idea when the bill blew up,” says one attorney involved in the negotiating process on behalf of the Judicial Council, who asked not to be named.

In October 1997, Wilson signed the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act (Stats. 1997, ch. 850), named by the bill’s author, Assembly Judiciary Committee chairwoman Escutia, for Lockyer and Democrat Phil Isenberg, a former Assembly Judiciary chairman and a longtime champion of statewide court reform. It gave the state full responsibility for funding trial court operations in a single, statewide trial court budget allocated by the Judicial Council.

George celebrated his victory in a speech delivered just hours after the bill became law. “Trial court funding has been the Judicial Council’s first and foremost priority,” he told the Conference of Delegates at the State Bar’s annual meeting in San Diego. “With the bill’s passage, the council can focus on those critical areas where funding is most urgently needed and make funding decisions in the best interests of the entire court system.”
The second priority on George’s agenda—unification of the superior and municipal courts—was almost as important, and nearly as hard to achieve.

The objective was to put more resources into the state’s civil calendars. Studies had shown that significant savings could be achieved by making all trial judges available for all kinds of cases, merging staffs, and eliminating duplicate facilities. “You would see municipal court judges finished with their preliminary hearings, and they’d go home, and [superior court] colleagues up to their ears in cases facing dismissal,” George recalls.
When George became chief, unification legislation had been stuck in the Legislature for four years. “When he came on board and actually embraced this, that was big,” recalls Barankin, whose boss, Lockyer, had carried the bill.
The Legislature promptly approved unification in July 1996 as a proposed constitutional amendment, and state voters endorsed it in 1998 as Proposition 220. A key provision that assured legislative passage allowed the judges in each county to vote on whether to unify. As George remembers it, he and Lockyer agreed that a local option was the only politically feasible way to achieve court unification. “I always thought that once we had the vast majority [of counties], the holdouts would come along,” George says.

Within a year after Prop. 220 passed, the judges of 53 counties had voted to merge their courts. Once again, the most significant holdout was Los Angeles County, where the superior court’s resistance to unification was intense. As Isenberg recalls, the superior court judges there “hated” the idea of being “equated in any way, shape, or form with municipal court judges, since God intended that there be a superior court composed only of superior court judges.” In the central Los Angeles courthouse, the judges even had separate dining facilities, George says. A municipal court judge could dine in the superior court dining room only at the invitation of a superior court judge.

The judges who opposed unification raised a host of objections. In July 1998 Superior Court Judge David Workman speculated in the Los Angeles Daily Journal that “harried trial judges at the Superior Court level will be hard-pressed to listen patiently to smaller disputes, given their large inventory of other matters.”
That month the judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court voted against unification. According to the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, George and the Judicial Council threatened various sanctions, including withholding funding for modernization and other programs.

At least one judge left for higher pay as a neutral rather than accept a merger. In a March 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Daily Journal, retiring Superior Court Judge Enrique Romero said he wasn’t sure he wanted to be part of a court system that could end up with 500 to 600 judicial officers. “It’s just too humongous,” Romero said. “It’s just too big, too huge to manage.”

In April 1999 a committee of the Los Angeles Superior Court warned that if the courts unified, the county would likely face a lawsuit for violations of the federal Voting Rights Act because minority voters would be less able to elect judges representing their communities. Judges might even be held personally liable for damages and attorneys fees, the panel cautioned.

Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien, a dissenting committee member, shot back a memo disparaging “feigned concerns about voting rights of minorities.”

Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson returned the fire, saying O’Brien’s memo was based on “wishful thinking.” But Municipal Court Judge Philip K. Mautino circulated the memo to members of the Municipal Court Presiding Judges Association—who overwhelmingly supported unification—with a cover note reading, “We are not alone.”

When the superior court judges voted against unification for a second time in June 1999, they ignited a firestorm. “L.A. Lawmakers Send a Distress Signal to Judges: They’re Mad as Hell and Want Unification,” a Los Angeles Daily Journal headline read. Legislators said they would give the superior court judges one more chance to unify, according to the story by Tom Dresslar. After that, additional judgeships for the county could be withheld, judicial pay raises could be denied, or all new judgeships in Los Angeles could be designated for the municipal court. One lawmaker reportedly considered introducing a bill to convert all Los Angeles Superior Court judges to municipal court judges.

The article quoted state Senator Escutia: “As soon as next year starts and [the Los Angeles judges] haven’t gotten their act together, I will engage.” People were trying to read the political tea leaves, she recalls, “and it took them a while.”

Lockyer, who was by then the state attorney general, offered his reassurance: In a letter to Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Victor A. Chavez, he stated that in the unlikely event of a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act, he would represent the court or individual judges if requested by the Judicial Council to do so.

The superior court judges voted again in January 2000, this time agreeing by a margin of more than 2-to-1 to merge with the municipal court. (The county’s muni court judges had approved the merger in all three rounds of balloting.)

Some of the original critics still have misgivings about the change. “In retrospect, I think that I and others were right,” says retired Judge Romero, now a neutral for ADR Services in Century City. “Los Angeles has probably 25 to 30 percent of all judges in the state of California. It is an administrative nightmare to run such a huge bureaucracy.”

But Judge Workman says his fears about wasting time on municipal court–level matters turned out to be unfounded. He says he enjoyed hearing some of the smaller cases, and his former colleagues on the superior court also handled them well. “I think ultimately there was a better use of judges’ time,” he says.

The last of George’s major structural reforms—transferring county court facilities to state ownership and responsibility—got under way with the passage of authorizing legislation by state Senator Escutia: the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002. (Stats. 2002, ch. 1082 (S.B. 1732).)

But the transfer process wasn’t easy, involving intricate negotiations with each county. The counties had their separate concerns and one common one: They worried that the state would take over their best properties and saddle them with responsibility for the problem sites, says Rubin Lopez, who represented the California State Association of Counties in the negotiations.

Once in a while George stepped into the talks personally. He was a reasonable negotiator, Lopez says, “but he didn’t give away the store.” The chief’s very presence would alter the chemistry, Lopez recalls. “It helps when you meet with the chief justice and he looks you in the face and says, ‘We understand there are some good things for you and there are some tough things for you, but my objective is that the facilities transfers to the state will take place according to the letter of the law.’ ”

Eventually more than 500 court facilities came under management by the state. About one-third of the most crowded, least safe, and least accessible buildings were designated for replacement, expansion, or renovation. Many of those projects have been completed or are under way, thanks in large part to a $5 billion revenue bond measure enacted in 2008.

Under George’s leadership many more resources were allocated to the courts: More than 100 new judgeships were added in the past decade, judicial pay increased almost 46 percent—to $178,789—and annual spending on trial court operations climbed to more than $3 billion.

“There was not a desire for centralization for centralization’s sake or for a power grab,” says LeBov, the Judicial Council’s former liaison to Sacramento. “To the extent that the model favored some increase in centralized management, it was for the purpose of bringing greater functionality to the system.”

With state ownership and control of the California trial courts, the Judicial Council’s AOC has grown in size and power. As George sees things, the growth of that central infrastructure merely reflects the AOC’s additional responsibilities.

“The AOC is obligated to do so much more now than in the past,” says agency spokesman Philip Carrizosa. To perform its new functions, the office has had to hire new types of professionals: architects, real estate attorneys, finance specialists, labor lawyers, and computer wonks.

It has launched sophisticated data systems to manage cases, finances, and personnel, as well as programs tailored for many special types of litigants—from foster children to the business community.

Still, the numbers are startling. In 1998 the AOC’s budget was about $77 million; last year it was $138.9 million—or if you include the court facilities budget, $320 million.

The AOC’s staffing has increased from 268 full-time employees in 1998 to 878 as of last March, and about a quarter of those workers are paid $100,000 a year or more. They include bureaucrats—directors, managers, and supervisors—as well as professionals with special skills—attorneys, consultants, and computer development analysts.

The number of public employees at the AOC earning six figures may seem outsized, but Carrizosa says the percentage is lower than at some other state agencies with lawyers and other professionals on staff. At the courts of appeal, for example, he says 46 percent of employees earn more than $100,000; the figure is 38 percent at the California Highway Patrol and 27 percent at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

AOC spending accounts for just 3.9 percent of the judicial branch budget, Carrizosa says; another 7 percent is devoted to AOC facilities maintenance, renovation, and construction programs. The biggest part of the branch budget — 90.6 percent— pays for the trial courts. The entire branch budget is 5.2 percent of the total state budget.

But there’s no question that court administration in California became a growth industry under George. Critics, and even some admirers, raised concerns all along.

Larry Stirling—a former Republican assemblyman, state senator, and trial judge from San Diego—says court unification has been used as an excuse to create “a huge, metastasized bureaucracy,” thereby nullifying any savings that may be achieved through efficiency.

The criticism has settled less on George than on the AOC, Vickrey—its $217,574-a-year administrative director—and the Judicial Council, to which the AOC answers.

“The chief has done a most impressive job as an administrator and a judge,” says Steve White, presiding judge of the Sacramento Superior Court. “But this is not to suggest that the result has been entirely positive. My concern is with the appetite and ambition of the AOC to manage and superintend the courts—as if the judiciary is a subset of the AOC rather than the other way around.”

White speaks of a “huge gravity that pulls things in” at the AOC, and “a huge staff that is constantly tweaking and launching initiatives, and fine-tuning and quietly expanding its authority.”

Critics and supporters alike speculate that Vickrey, more than George, was setting the administrative agenda, but nobody seems to know. “I think it could go either way,” says one former high-ranking AOC employee who declined to be named. “Bill is the energizing force, and Bill is the visionary. He was brought in by [former Chief Justice] Malcolm Lucas because he was a visionary, and George bought into it … because it was time to bring the courts into the 20th century,” the source continued. “The fundamental question is, how much of what Bill was doing was the chief aware of, and how much didn’t he want to know? … Bill has an agenda.”

Whether that agenda involved persuading or manipulating George—or whether Vickrey simply knew he had George’s support—can only be guessed at, this source says.

Vickrey, a former Utah state court administrator and former executive director of Utah’s Department of Corrections, has kept a low public profile. But a former judge and member of the governing committee of California’s Center for Judicial Education and Research (CJER) describes how the AOC leader extended his influence. Soon after George became chief justice, the former board member recounts, “the Judicial Council approved a rewriting of its committee mandates in a way that gave the council full control of continuing judicial education—previously a joint responsibility of the council and the California Judges Association. When someone from the CJER board noticed this, Vickrey said he never intended that result. However, when CJER suggested removing the [problematic] language, Vickrey defended it, saying the Judicial Council had to have the control because the state funded the program.”

The source, who asked not to be identified, continues: “The chief’s position was, ‘We didn’t intend to pull the wool over your eyes. But now that it’s happened, it’s not a bad result.’ Was that Vickrey’s plan? He denied it, but it’s happened.”

Did Vickrey mishandle the AOC, though?

The former CJER board member gives the AOC director his due: “The guy’s good. Good staff, good manner, and the statewide control of the judiciary has happened under him, and he’s done a decent job of it.”

Vickrey says he and George “enjoyed a close personal relationship that [was] truly a partnership,” consulting almost daily on the big picture and often on the details as well.

But he says he “would not be operating independently of the chief justice or the council. … While I have a point of view on issues, I am not the one that sets policy.” The AOC’s Carrizosa also disputes the former CJER board member’s account.

George’s allegiance to Vickrey is unwavering. “I don’t know of anybody in public service who works longer hours than Bill. He’s extremely loyal to the system and the interests of judges,” George says.

He says Vickrey has taken the heat because he has been “the face” of the administrative apparatus. Vickrey was delegated the function of running the Judicial Council’s staff, but “it’s a cheap shot,” says the former chief, to accuse the AOC director of usurping the Judicial Council’s function. “The Judicial Council members are extremely active, and they run the show.”

In 2009 massive cuts to the California state budget to offset a $20 billion deficit led to court closings, employee furloughs, and layoffs. Within the judiciary those cutbacks revived old concerns that consolidation of the trial courts under state control had been a ruinous idea. The complaints, coming now from a new crop of critics, have a familiar ring.

Tia Fisher, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, says the AOC acts as if it has sole authority to determine what access to justice means. “Judges—that’s our job, not the bureaucratic arm of the judiciary, but judges,” she says.
David Lampe, a superior court judge in Kern County, complains that the AOC lacks “institutional tension: There doesn’t seem to be anyone there to say no to a project, or to say, ‘This project is too big.'”

Fisher and Lampe are among the 14 directors of the Alliance of California Judges, which emerged from the 2009 budget crisis. Its mantra is local autonomy, and it has been unrelenting in its advocacy. Sometimes armed with solid evidence, sometimes not, the alliance has criticized the cost and functionality of the AOC’s computer systems and building projects, the agency’s motives, and its leadership.

Although the alliance keeps its membership list secret, Lampe estimates the total to be more than 250. Retired Judge Stirling of San Diego and Judge White of Sacramento confirm that they are members.

George calls the alliance “part of a periodic wish for an earlier time and [an expression of] resentment at statewide administration of justice.” But Lampe takes issue with that characterization. He acknowledges that the AOC has a role in creating efficiencies and in assuring uniform budgeting. The question, he says, is one of balance.

It’s a question of balance for George as well. He agrees that local autonomy is an important principle: After all, local judges are independent constitutional officers. But he says the dissidents don’t want to be held accountable to the Judicial Council-and that’s wrong.

Early last summer, after George negotiated a funding package that seemed likely to prevent statewide court closings during the 2011 fiscal year, some of his critics backed off.

Yet the alliance has picked up some influential support. David S. Wesley, named last year as assistant presiding judge in Los Angeles County, told the Metropolitan News Enterprise in September that he thought the alliance had some ideas worth discussing. That same month the Los Angeles Daily Journal reported that David Thompson, the new assistant presiding judge in Orange County, said he hoped to “strike an appropriate balance between the powers that be in San Francisco and local autonomy.”

The California Judges Association has taken up some of the same issues that the alliance is pressing, calling for better oversight of pay raises given to AOC staff, for example.

In response to such concerns, George appointed an AOC oversight panel: the Judicial Council Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency for the Judicial Branch. As chairwoman he named Sacramento appellate Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who succeeds George as chief justice of California.

Cantil-Sakauye takes office this month armed with many of the talents needed to resolve the current disagreements. Smart, charming, and open to other people’s ideas, she has been received enthusiastically by George’s opponents as well as his supporters. She’s known as a careful listener who distills consensus from what she hears.

“I really want to listen, I like to hear from all voices,” Cantil-Sakauye told reporters after her confirmation hearing in August. “I am pretty collaborative, but I like to get to a decision.” She says she’ll sit down with the alliance judges—George says they never asked to meet with him. And although Cantil-Sakauye has defended the AOC’s growth as a function of its added responsibilities, she brings her own perspective to the job.

“I think the new chief justice has a pretty strong recognition that the Judicial Council is the boss over the AOC, and I think that’s healthy,” says Judge Connelly, who served with Cantil-Sakauye on the Sacramento Superior Court.

George seems content with his legacy, and he says he has taken his critics in stride. “Cyclically, there have always been periods when groups have opposed each other,” he says. “Judges will have differences concerning the administration of justice, and I respect that.” He views most of the criticism that came his way as constructive.
He explains that he tried to balance the need for individual judges to have independence with the need to preserve an independent judicial branch. Decisional independence can’t be ensured, he says, without financial and structural stability for the branch as a whole.

On a Saturday afternoon last November, George is at work in the chambers that he’ll soon vacate. The stacks of papers that once covered almost every flat surface have started to disappear. But George digs out a copy of a speech titled “Reorganization of Our Inferior Courts,” which Chief Justice Gibson delivered in 1949. Gibson, an early proponent of unifying the trial courts, suggested to his Stanislaus County Bar audience that few lawyers would be able to identify and describe the jurisdictions of the eight types of city and township courts, all below the superior court level, then operating in California.

Eight then. None today. “We each build on the work of our predecessors,” George says, “but we’ve come a long way.”

What surprised me when I did this story was to find out that he accomplished all of these things without tricks or subterfuge. He was pretty much on the up and up, and he brought people around.

Ronald M. George Biography

By Bob Egelko. He is legal affairs reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

In May 2008, when Chief Justice Ronald M. George led the state Supreme Court in legalizing same-sex marriage, he wrote that the California Constitution declares the right of every individual “to establish a legally recognized family with the person of one’s choice.” The legislative option of domestic partnership for gays and lesbians, he added, amounted to “second-class citizenship.” (In re Marriage Cases, 43 Cal. 4th 757 (2008).)

A year later, when George led his court in upholding a voter-approved ban on marriage between people of the same sex, he described the newly enacted Proposition 8 as a “narrow and limited exception” to the civil rights of equality and privacy. Domestic partners, he contended, receive “the same substantive core benefits” as opposite-sex couples (Strauss v. Horton, 46 Cal. 4th 364 (2009)).

Back in 1998 George wrote an opinion that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gays and atheists from membership, on the grounds that the organization was not a “business establishment” regulated by California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (Curran v. Mt. Diablo Council of Boy Scouts, 17 Cal. 4th 670 (1998)).

Yet three years earlier, he’d concluded that a private country club was a business establishment, and consequently required by Unruh to admit women as members (Warfield v. Peninsula Golf & Country Club, 10 Cal. 4th 594 (1995)).
The counterpoint in these cases doesn’t suggest that the chief justice has been inconsistent or self-contradictory—there are legitimate differences in both sets of cases. But it does illustrate that his work in 19 years on the state Supreme Court, and 14 years as its chief, doesn’t fit easily into a simple category. Even labels as general as “moderate” or “pragmatic” fall short.

Consider George’s first major ruling as chief justice, a 1997 decision overturning a statute that required parental consent for minors’ abortions. The law was supported by Gov. Pete Wilson, who just the previous year had appointed George to the court. Threatened with organized opposition by anti-abortion groups, the chief assigned the case to himself, penned the 4-3 ruling (Am. Acad. of Pediatrics v. Lungren, 16 Cal. 4th 307 (1997)), and then campaigned aggressively in 1998 to retain his office, winning a 75 percent majority at the polls.

The Lungren case involved issues of privacy and gender equality, both of which are principles George has championed. Another 1997 opinion barred a city, on privacy grounds, from randomly administering drug tests to its employees (Loder v. City of Glendale, 14 Cal. 4th 846 (1997)). And a decade after George’s 1995 ruling on gender bias at country clubs, he authored a decision that allowed female state prison workers to bring a harassment case against a warden who allegedly had promoted other women with whom he’d had affairs—sending a message, George wrote, that female employees were “viewed by management as ‘sexual playthings.’ ” (Miller v. Dep’t of Corrections, 36 Cal. 4th 446, 451 (2005).)

The same spirit animated George’s 2008 opinion upholding same-sex marriage, probably the case for which he’ll be best remembered. Writing for a 4-3 majority, he compared the decision to landmarks in 1948, when the California court became the first to strike down a state’s ban on interracial marriage, and in 1971, when the court ruled that the state constitution guaranteed equal rights for women. It was time to recognize, George said, that discrimination based on sexual orientation is rooted in outdated and unfounded stereotypes—and that, as an earlier court observed, “we have never been confined to historic notions of equality.” (43 Cal. 4th at 821, quoting People v. Belous, 71 Cal. 2d 954 (1969).)

His May 2009 opinion upholding Prop. 8, then, was not so much a repudiation of equality as it was George’s manifesto of the limits of the judicial role—to define rights within the boundaries of the law, while deferring to the people’s prerogative to narrow those boundaries by amending the constitution. Soon afterward, in a pair of high-profile speeches, he urged Californians to rein in the practice of “government by initiative,” a plea that seemed more likely to appeal to editorial writers than the public at large.

The Strauss decision also exemplified George as an institutionally minded justice, aware of his court’s strengths and vulnerabilities and constantly seeking its proper leverage point in the constitutional balance of powers.
He has generally been deferential to the political branches. One ruling upheld the authority of the Legislature and the governor, rather than his own court, to appoint members to the State Bar Court (Obrien v. Jones, 23 Cal. 4th 40 (2000)). Another decision creatively interpreted the legislative record to conclude that lawmakers had ratified Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to furlough state employees (Prof’l Engr’s in Cal. Gov’t v. Schwarzenegger, 50 Cal. 4th 989 (2010)).

George also required the governor to show only “some evidence” to justify vetoing paroles for life-term prisoners (In re Rosenkrantz, 29 Cal. 4th 616 (2002)). Yet he later wrote an opinion finding that Schwarzenegger had failed to meet that standard by relying solely on the facts of the prisoner’s crime (In re Lawrence, 44 Cal. 4th 1181 (2008)), prompting a slew of lower-court rulings against both the governor and the parole board. And after Wilson’s politically charged veto of the State Bar’s 1997 dues bill crippled the organization and froze attorney disciplinary proceedings, it was George—over the governor’s objections—who led his court in ordering an emergency $173 fee on lawyers that resuscitated the bar (In re Attorney Discipline System, 19 Cal. 4th 582 (1998)).

Above all, the chief justice has been protective of his court’s reputation, as he showed in a 2000 clash over Proposition 209, the ballot initiative that outlawed preferences based on race and sex in state and local programs. In a case about San Jose’s requirement that city contractors make “outreach” efforts to firms owned by women or minorities, Justice Janice Rogers Brown’s majority opinion assailed race-based affirmative action as the historical descendant of slavery and segregation and praised voters for restoring the principle of equal opportunity (Hi-Voltage Wire Works, Inc. v. City of San Jose, 24 Cal. 4th 537 (2000)).

George, who usually occupies the court’s ideological center and seldom dissents, wrote what he labeled a concurring and dissenting opinion in that case; it agreed with Brown that the San Jose program was invalid but rejected both her reasoning and her rhetoric. The court’s majority was guilty of a “serious distortion of history” and did a “grave disservice to the sincerely held views of a significant segment of our populace,” George wrote. His opinion had no practical effect on the parties or the law, but it kept the chief justice and his court in their customary position: firmly in the middle of the legal debate.

Richard Fine

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Richard Fine in California

Richard Fine, Lawyer in Jail

In the year 2000, he was a successful, highly respected litigator. In 2010, he has just been released from a year-and-a-half stay at a Los Angeles County jail.

The basic facts behind his story are easy enough to understand. On March 4, 2009, Fine entered the Men’s Central Jail after a state superior court judge found him in contempt for refusing to pay the penalty for missing a filing deadline. Around the same time, the California Supreme Court revoked his license to practice law for filing dozens of groundless motions that challenged both the integrity and the legitimacy of judges. What none of these facts even begin to reveal, however, is: Why?

Richard Fine: California Corruption

By Michael Estrin. He is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Disbarment and imprisonment apparently won’t persuade Richard Fine to stop accusing state judges of being on the take.

The 70-year-old disbarred attorney claims that he was a prisoner of conscience who continues to pay a very high price for blowing the whistle on a state-sanctioned bribery scheme that implicates hundreds of judges. As he told the Los Angeles Daily News in March for an article that would mark the one-year anniversary of his confinement: “We’ve exposed the most massive judicial corruption scheme in the history of the United States.” (…)

In short order, I learned that Fine has a law degree from the University of Chicago and a PhD in international law from the London School of Economics. I also learned that in the early 1970s he worked in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, bringing price-fixing cases against the likes of General Motors and the Ford Motor Company. By the 1990s, though, Fine was making a name for himself in private practice, filing cases against the public sector. One sixteen-year-old clip from the Lodi News-Sentinel names him as part of a team of attorneys who sued California for illegally “robbing” special state funds to plug holes in the budget. In 1995, a Los Angeles Times story identified Fine as the lawyer behind a $116 million suit against the city, claiming that it had illegally diverted funds set aside for installing fire sprinklers in public buildings, constructing parking lots, and maintaining parking meters. The same story also noted that Fine had won a $3 million judgment against the city in a separate lawsuit on behalf of the Los Angeles Harbor Trust Fund, and that he blocked the misappropriation of another $120 million the city had planned to tap to fix a budget shortfall. Then in 1996, according to the Times, Fine brought suit on behalf of two North Hollywood residents against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for allegedly overcharging customers by as much as $65 million in sewer fees.

Taken together, these clips suggest that Fine was a crusader rather than just another hired gun. In fact, the man claims to have recovered or saved taxpayers nearly a billion dollars over the course of his career. But by the spring of 2009, when L.A. Superior Court Judge David Yaffe found him in contempt, Fine’s crusade had morphed into a single-minded campaign against the roughly $300 million in benefits that he estimates L.A. superior court judges had received from the county since the late 1980s to supplement their state-paid salaries. These payments, Fine insisted, made it almost impossible to get a fair hearing in Los Angeles when representing parties against the county.

It was, of course, a whopper of a claim. And yet, as wacky as it seemed, Fine could point to at least one case that strongly suggested he was on to something. This was a case brought by the conservative public interest group Judicial Watch on behalf of a Los Angeles County taxpayer named Harold P. Sturgeon. The question it raised was this: Could California’s judges collect any county-paid insurance or retirement benefits without violating the state’s Constitution? (Under Article VI, section 19, judicial compensation must be set by the Legislature.) On October 10, 2008, the California Court of Appeals in the Fourth District ruled that they could not (Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, 167 Cal. App. 4th 630 (2008)).

Needless to say, for the roughly 90 percent of California’s trial judges who receive local benefits of some sort, that decision came as quite a shock. And in Sacramento, it set off a mad scramble to enact a legislative fix. The result was SB 11 (Steinberg), which passed both chambers of the Legislature during a special weekend budget session in February 2009 (see Cal. Gov. Code §§ 68220?68222).

Then, just one month later, Richard Fine found himself in jail.

When I first spoke with Fine in early May of this year, a CNN crew had already been out to the Men’s Central Jail to film a story about him. Also by then, inmate No. 1824367 had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review his habeas corpus petition. His request would soon be rejected (see Fine v. Sheriff of Los Angeles County, 2009 WL 4874116 (9th Cir,), cert. denied sub nom. Fine v. Baca, 130 S. Ct. 1334 (2010)), but not before prompting simultaneous demonstrations on his behalf: one in front of the U.S. Supreme Court; the other outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, where about 75 protestors chanted “This is America, not Russia!”

As I expected, Fine felt pretty good about all that attention. But when I arrived at the jail, I also learned that he was having some problems with his health. Most worrisome was the swelling in his legs. His blood sugar and cholesterol numbers also were high. “The Rabbi told me to go with the kosher meals because they were better,” he told me with a slight laugh. “But the food is still pretty bad.”

We spoke to each other through a pair of clunky, black phones in the jail’s second-floor infirmary, he on one side of a thick glass partition and I on the other. Fine’s side was dimly lit, so it was difficult for me to see beyond his stall. But occasionally I heard the sound of a steel door opening and closing, which disrupted our conversation. The interview on that day alone lasted for five hours.

(To minimize the possibility of unrest, the two newspapers that the prisoners had access to were out of date and heavily edited by the jail’s staff. So although Fine had a pretty good grasp of what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was not nearly so up to date on Los Angeles.)

Heavyset and bespectacled, he struck me as a rather pleasant, grandfatherly sort of guy. But when the talk turned to how the county was enhancing judicial compensation packages, Fine’s posture noticeably stiffened. “It’s bribery,” he said, tilting his head straight at me. “The result is that when you sue [a county] on a bench trial, you lose.”

As Fine recalls, he didn’t realize that the county was doing any of this until 2000-at least a dozen years after it started. But then when I asked him how he found out, his answer floored me. The person who tipped him off, he said, was none other than Ronald M. George, the chief justice of California.

“I had a feeling something was amiss for a while,” he explained. “I had come across some really bizarre rulings in my cases against the county, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t learn about the payments until I read a news report of a speech given by Chief Justice George where he said that these payments were unconstitutional.”

When I later checked out the Free Richard Fine website devoted to his defense, I would indeed find a quotation attributed to George: “That state of affairs is not only wrong, it may be unconstitutional,” it said.

This quote, I’ve since determined, came from a September 18, 2000, article in a legal daily in L.A. called the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, which described an informal Q&A session in San Diego between the chief justice and members of the California Judges Association. In the article, however, the line Fine’s website excerpt-ed did not have any quotation marks around it, suggesting the reporter had paraphrased the remark.

When I called the State Supreme Court for a comment, a spokeswoman for George said that the Chief didn’t remember ever making such a remark. She also noted that it wasn’t altogether unheard of for a reporter to take his comments out of context.

Clearly, I wasn’t going to get to the bottom of this easily. But to hear Fine tell it, I needn’t have bothered.
“You won’t find a copy of that speech,” he said before I left the jail. “They don’t want that out there.”
His words had the ring of a bad Hollywood thriller.

In one of the last cases of his legal career, before he lost his license, Fine represented a homeowners association called Marina Strand, which was challenging Los Angeles County’s permit for a high-rise apartment complex to be built in Marina del Ray (Marina Strand Colony II Homeowners Ass’n v. County of Los Angeles, No. BS 109420 (Los Angeles Super. Ct.)). Fine filed the action in June 2007, but before the year was out the State Bar, as part of its disbarment proceedings against him, ruled his membership inactive. (See In Re Matter of Richard I. Fine, No. 04-0-14366 (State Bar Ct. inactive enrollment ordered Oct. 17, 2007).) So the home-owners’ association turned the matter over to another attorney named Rose Zoia.

According to Zoia, there was nothing unusual about the Marina Strand case itself. Arguing before Judge Yaffe, she won on some issues and lost on several others. Each side then appealed, only for the case to be dismissed as moot when the county issued a new environmental impact report.

I asked Zoia whether she agreed with Fine that nobody suing the county in L.A. could get a fair hearing. “No,” she emailed back, “I would not support that very general proposition. Of course, whether one agrees with the outcome of any given case is a different issue.”

Marina Strand may have been perfectly routine from a case law standpoint, but if you go to the records department of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and ask for the files, you’ll end up with a cart filled with four volumes of material, much of it devoted to the fight that landed Fine in jail. The issue at hand: Did Judge Yaffe have the authority to order Fine to pay $46,329.01? This was the amount that the lawyers for the apartment project’s developer said Fine owed them for missing a filing deadline. (Fine calls this sum preposterous, maintaining that his error caused only a one-day delay in the proceedings.) But rather than argue over the merits of the claim, Fine simply insisted that Yaffe’s authority had been entirely compromised by the money that he was receiving from the county.

As Fine began to file motions calling for Yaffe’s disqualification, their ex-changes grew increasingly tense. At one point Yaffe asked: “Is there any judge or justice in California that can order you to do anything?”

“The answer to your question is yes,” Fine responded, “there are judges within the county [and the] California judicial system that can order me to do something. You are not one of them.”

Fine then added: “There are people in the California judicial system who are clean. There are a lot of people who are not clean. … Unfortunately, your Honor, you are in this group that is disqualified.” Minutes later, the judge found Fine in contempt of court.

By the time Judicial Watch decided to throw its weight behind Sturgeon, Los Angeles County had already been supplementing judges’ salaries for almost two decades, though the practice wasn’t codified into state law until 1998, when the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act took effect. (In addition to Los Angeles, 34 of the state’s 58 counties also supplement their judges’ salaries, although by much smaller amounts.) But in the appeal of Sturgeon, Justice Patricia Benke ruled in October 2008 that under current law the state Legislature could not delegate to individual counties such constitutionally prescribed duties as setting judges’ compensation (Sturgeon, 167 Cal. App. 4th at 635).

It wasn’t that counties didn’t have a “legitimate interest” in assuring the competence and skill of the judges who serve them, she allowed. “Because they improve recruitment and retention of judicial officers, the disputed benefits … serve a public purpose.” Yet she concluded that the Lockyer-Isenberg law did not pass constitutional muster because it failed to stipulate “any standard or inherent safeguard by which future increases or decreases in judicial benefits would be regulated.” (167 Cal. App. 4th 656.)

Benke’s decision drew an immediate appeal from the county and prompted L.A.’s superior court judges to retain their own counsel (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher), which was paid for out of a superior court defense fund. Meanwhile, with reports circulating that a number of senior judges were threatening to retire, pressure mounted for a legislative solution that would keep the county funds flowing without interruption.

And SB 11 – which Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law on February 20, 2009 – did just that.

Actually, the legislation did three important things. First, it addressed the constitutionally mandated role of the state by requiring the Judicial Council to report to the Senate annually any judicial payments that the counties made. Second, it empowered the counties to stop making such payments, as long as the judges affected are given at least 180 days written notice. (Observers had worried there might be no legal way for a county to stop giving money to judges once they started.) And third, the bill shielded public entities and officers against any liability from past payments. (See Cal. Gov. Code §§ 68220?68222.)

Later, Judge James Richman affirmed that the supplemental payments could continue in light of SB 11’s passage: “[T]he Legislature obviously considered the problem identified in Sturgeon,” wrote the San Francisco appellate court judge, who was transferred to Los Angeles just to hear the case. “That the Legislature did not ordain a uniform state-wide amount of the total salary, compensation, and benefits,” he added, “does not show the ‘abdication’ that Plaintiff so vigorously decries.” (Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, No. BC 351286 (Los Angeles Super. Ct.) order on summary judgment at pp. 11?12.)

To Fine, of course, these developments were all part of an “outrageous act of corruption.” However, when I asked Paul Orfanedes, the director of litigation at Judicial Watch, for his assessment, he seemed to go out of his way to distance himself from Fine’s characterization. “In our view,” he told me after a long pause, “the California state Constitution says that only the Legislature can set judicial compensation. Is this payment corruption? Maybe it’s a form of corruption, I don’t know. But it is not a kickback scheme or a quid pro quo.

“Fine’s fight predated our case,” added Orfanedes, whose organization has appealed Judge Richman’s ruling. “When the court of appeals ruled in our favor [in Sturgeon], he used that as an opportunity to bring attention to his issues.”

On May 24, Fine scored a big media coup when CNN aired its lengthy segment about him on Anderson Cooper’s 360 news show. Among those interviewed for the program was Los Angeles County’s cost litigation manager, Steven Estabrook. For the network’s online version of the story, he told CNN that in the past two fiscal years the county had won eight of nine bench trials – odds that seemed to support Fine’s complaints. When I spoke to Estabrook later, however, he told me that the numbers were not nearly so definitive. For one thing, he noted, records on the county’s success at the bench versus at jury trial go back only three years. He also noted that no one has collected statistics on pretrial motions, which is when many rulings go against the county.

In addition to giving Fine an opportunity to talk about judicial corruption, CNN provided him with a platform to describe the harsh conditions of his confinement in a seven-and-a-half by thirteen-foot cell set apart from the rest of the inmates. And in a second video clip posted on CNN’s website, Fine’s wife and daughter described their own pain and indignation.

In fact, Fine’s daughter, Victoria, had lots to say about this case, even before the CNN program. An editor at the Huf-fington Post, she wrote an impassioned editorial for the online news organization back in January, describing her father as a “political prisoner.”

Still, CNN’s broadcast struck at least one critical note: “What [Fine] ultimately did” in Marina Strand, said Joseph Carlucci, the lead prosecutor for the California State Bar on Fine’s disciplinary case, “was to delay proceedings, [and] to level false accusations against judges. All those lawsuits were found to have been frivolous and meritless,” he added. The segment also made mention of the fact that Fine had been disbarred – an action the California Supreme Court finalized on March 13, 2009 (Fine v. State Bar, No. S168418).

Unlike Judge Yaffe’s deliberations, the State Bar’s disbarment proceedings against Fine passed judgment on a long history of acting out. The records on this are voluminous. Numbering thousands of pages, they portray a litigator who at times seemed virtually out of control. As State Bar Judge Joann Remke wrote: “[Fine had a] pattern of deliberately and repeatedly misusing this state’s statutory process for challenging a judicial officer’s qualifications.” (In the matter of Richard I. Fine, No. 04-0-14366 (State Bar Ct.) opinion and order at p. 1.)

To make their case, State Bar prosecutors focused on five civil suits that Fine had worked on over the years, including one in which he filed no fewer than a dozen disqualification motions, three times the number he filed in Marina Strand. This was a class action that arose out of a series of claims against an insurance company that allegedly had hired an imposter physician (DeFlores v. EHG Nat. Health Servs., No. B150607 (Los Angeles Super. Ct. filed May 23, 1996)). When Fine and several other plaintiffs lawyers settled the case in 1999 for $9.2 million, one-third of the settlement was set aside for attorneys fees. However, all hell broke loose when Bruce Mitchell, the commissioner who presided over the case, refused to authorize a $1.4 million advance payment that Fine was seeking before the court had made a clear determination about how much money each attorney was owed.

Fine filed his first motion to disqualify Mitchell in December 1999, claiming that the commissioner had colluded with another plaintiffs attorney to cheat him out of his fee. Four months later, with Fine becoming increasingly obstreperous, Mitchell removed him from his role as class counsel – although he did allow him to continue representing a few of the litigants. In September 2001, with Fine up to nine disqualification motions, Mitchell found him in contempt of court and sentenced him to five days in jail. Fine then appealed the matter to Justice Roger Boren of the Second District, who not only rejected Fine’s arguments (he noted that Fine, along with the other lawyers in the case, had stipulated without objection to Mitchell acting as the pretrial judge), but also found his accusations to be “false and thus contemptuous.” Thus, Mitchell’s contempt order stood (Fine v. Superior Court, 97 Cal. App. 4th, 651 (2002)).

Amazingly enough, the ruling failed to dissuade him from filing even more disqualification motions against Mitchell. And in October 2002, with Fine up to his twelfth motion, an independent judge assigned to the case once again found him in contempt.

The State Bar Court found a similar pattern of abuse in the four other civil cases it looked at, in which he racked up another 18 disqualification motions. Perhaps even more telling, however, were the five disqualification motions Fine subsequently filed against the State Bar Court trial judge who presided over his disbarment trial, the five more he filed against the supervising judge of that court, the six against the presiding judge of the review department, and the eight he filed against other review judges.

In her opinion, State Bar Judge Remke stated that Fine had committed “multiple acts of moral turpitude.” (In the matter of Richard I. Fine, No. 04-0-14366, opinion and order at p. 16.) But when I bounced those words off of Fine, he simply scoffed. “”Moral turpitude,” he said, “is an archaic concept.”

“This started with an effort to take away my fees because they thought I would quit [pursuing the DeFlores class action] if they went after my pocketbook,” he continued. “Then, they went after my license, and now I’m in jail. As a friend of mine said, ‘Richard, they’d kill you if they could figure out a legal way to do it.’ ”

“Who told you that?” I asked. “A personal friend,” he answered back, without saying anything more about it.

Is it reasonable to suppose that the hundreds of millions of dollars that state judges have received from Los Angeles County make it more difficult for lawyers there to win cases against the public sector? Frankly, I think it’s something worth looking at. But even if one were to concede the point, is Richard Fine the best person in the world to be making it?

This brings me to Roger M. Grace, an attorney who also happens to be the editor and co-publisher of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise. Grace is clearly no fan of the judge who threw Fine in jail. In fact, back in 2001, Grace wrote no fewer than seven highly critical columns about David Yaffe. “From what I’ve observed,” Grace wrote, “Yaffe does, to his credit, read the briefs. And he has a substantial quantum of law memorized. To his discredit, however, he’s a nasty and arrogant SOB.” Grace then proceeded to quote nine lawyers, most of them without attribution, who more or less echoed his sentiment.

Still, when I asked Grace whether Yaffe had mistreated Fine, he answered: “Even Yaffe is going to get one right.”
In early August, Judge Yaffe announced his retirement, effective November 1. Then, on September 17, just one day after formally restating his intention to keep the disbarred attorney locked up, Yaffe abruptly ordered Fine’s release. “It is becoming increasingly clear that Fine’s conduct is irrational,” the judge wrote. “His conduct is bizarre, and that fact alone must be considered [in determining whether his continued] confinement serves any useful purpose.”

Fine, however, had a different take on what happened. “Right will win over might. This is a really great day for Los Angeles and for California,” he told the Los Angeles Daily News. He also promised that he would continue his fight to “clean up the judiciary in California.”

I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers who were able to make their best arguments and then move on,” he says. “But in Fine’s case the argument mushroomed into an all-consuming passion that cost him everything. I guess I still don’t understand why he did what he did in the way that he did it.

Christopher C. Cottle

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Christopher C. Cottle in California

BAR ADMISSION: Admitted to California Bar in January 1967

EDUCATION: Stanford University (BA, History, Class of 1962); University of California Hastings College of Law (JD, Class of 1966).

PROFESSIONAL LEGAL BACKGROUND: Private practice, San Jose, CA (1967-1968); Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney (1968-1975); Santa Cruz County District Attorney (1975-1977).

JUDICIAL BACKGROUND: 1977 to 1988, Superior Court Judge, Santa Cruz County (civil, criminal, law and motion, probate, family law and juvenile departments, and terms as Presiding Judge); 1988, appointed to Court of Appeal, Associate Justice and elected 1990. In 1993 appointed Presiding Justice and elected 1994.

PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES/ASSOCIATIONS/AFFILIATIONS: State Bar; California Judges Association; Judicial Council Criminal Law Advisory Committee; Appellate Presiding Justices Advisory Committee; Santa Clara County Bar Association; Santa Cruz County Bar Association; California District Attorney’s Association.

EDUCATIONAL/PROFESSIONAL HONORS AND AWARDS: Honors and awards from the Santa Cruz County Bar Association and Bar Committees during tenure as Superior Court Judge.

PROFESSIONAL TEACHING/EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES: Active in legal education through programs for the California Judges Association and Continuing Education of the Bar. Teacher and lecturer at law schools, colleges and high schools.

COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES: Membership on Board of Directors of Gateway School; Santa Cruz Montessori School; York School; Cabrillo Music Festival and Capitola-Soquel Little League.

Associate Justice in the Sixth Appellate District in 1998.

Dan Lungren

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Dan Lungren in California

His 1998 California General Election Governor Candidate Statements for the Republican Party:

“I felt fortunate to grow up in California. With support of my family, my Catholic faith and a sound education, I knew California promised unlimited opportunity. I want that same opportunity for all. As Attorney General, working with law enforcement, we have lowered the crime rate 30%. Tough laws, common sense judges, the death penalty and real prevention replaced failed policies that blamed society for crime. As Governor, I intend to continue this progress and bring similar attention to education reform. Bold change–including parental choice–is key to building a safer and stronger California. Together, we can do it.”

Gray Davis

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Gray Davis in California

His 1998 California General Election Governor Candidate Statements for the Democratic Party:

“I offer experience that will move us forward. I’ve been proud to serve you as Acting Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State Controller, Assemblyman, Chief of Staff to a Governor, and a U.S. Army Captain in Vietnam prior to that. As Governor, my top priority will be to dramatically improve our public schools . I’ll take a high-expectation approach to learning by raising standards and holding students, teachers and parents accountable. I will also hold government accountable. As Controller, I withheld paychecks from all State officeholders–including myself–until the Legislature passed the budget, and went to court to stop Gov. Wilson from raiding public pension funds. I have always been for the death penalty and am proud that I’ve won the endorsement of almost every law enforcement group in California.

I’ll protect our neighborhoods by keeping assault weapons off our streets, defend our kids by standing up to the tobacco industry and preserve our environment by stopping offshore oil drilling. I will continue fighting to protect a woman’s right to choose– and take on the insurance companies and HMO bureaucrats to make sure you get the doctor of your choice and the care you deserve. Together, we’ll get California moving again.”

Harold H. Bloomfield

This is a Non Profit Project. We don't collect personal data and we don't use cookies.

Harold H. Bloomfield in California

His 1998 California General Election Candidate Statements for the Party Natural Law:

“Natural Law provides practical, prevention-oriented solutions to our pressing health, social, and environmental problems. Government today is like a diseased patient, and the two-party system like the worst of modern medicine–crisis-driven, expensive, strongly influenced by financial interests, ineffective at solving myriad chronic problems, and wrought with dangerous side effects. Prevention-oriented government will heal this situation. I am a Yale-trained psychiatrist, specializing in integrative psychiatry and natural medicine and frequently speak at conferences worldwide. My work has been featured on 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, and Larry King , as well as Time, Newsweek, and People Magazine.

I have authored 17 books, several of them international bestsellers, including Healing Anxiety with Herbs, Hypericum (St. John’s Wort) & Depression, How to Survive the Loss of a Love, and TM–Transcendental Meditation. I am happily married with three children, ages 15 to 26. For 25 years, I’ve championed prevention in medicine; the Natural Law Party supports preventive health programs and applies the same integrative, prevention-oriented policy to all areas of government. This science-based natural approach is the key to improve the health, education, and prosperity of all Californians. Together, we can spend less and accomplish more!”