Saturday, February 23, 2008

kanBARoo Court. 30A Installment. Collateral Estoppel as a Tool of Judicial Bias in the Richard Fine Matter

Although Richard I. Fine’s supposedly corrupt motive for filing motions deemed frivolous formed the crux of the State Bar's case against him, the State Bar Court also made a strained attempt to allege dishonesty, lending a comic aspect to its account. A dispute arose over an apparent Freudian slip by a Superior Court judge in his statement of refusal to disqualify one Commissioner Mitchell, when that Superior Court judge, hearing Fine's motion to disqualify, contradicted himself. The judge wrote that Fine's objections were unfounded and also wrote that Commissioner Mitchell had been "not impartial.” Later, the Superior Court judge announced he had not intended the negation. Judge Honn concluded that Fine had lied to the Court of Appeal about the contents of the Superior Court judge's opinion, when Fine insisted the opinion was actually self-contradictory.

Judge Honn claimed the Superior Court judge had clearly made a “typographical error.” The characterization is curiously inaccurate, and it reveals how Judge Honn wears his bias on his sleeve. This is a most strange "typographical error," a term that "includes errors due to mechanical failure or slips of the hand or finger, but excludes errors of ignorance." (Wikipedia.) If the Superior Court judge successfully maintained his mistake was clerical in nature, he is entitled to correct it sua sponte, but the source of his mistake, if it was a mistake, looks to be his confusing the meaning of "partial" and "impartial," not a clerk typing the wrong alpha-numeric. Small gestures, such as mislabeling one contender's errors, are often key to detecting judicial bias. Although respondent Fine was entitled to a clear and convincing evidence standard of proof, Judge Honn tilted the playing field in the opposite direction, when he used a euphemism for the supposed error.

The Bar Court determined that Fine misrepresented the Superior Court judge’s opinion, treating Fine's disagreement with a judge as though it were dishonesty. No doubt the disagreement was serious, as Fine challenged the judge on characterizing judicial intent. But Fine was entitled to challenge the judge’s characterization, and entitled to treat the document as meaning what it literally said. The State Bar Court's finding by clear and convincing that the judge had made a typographical error expresses genuine absurdity, besides absurd pettiness.

But wait! Did the court even have to evaluate the evidence? In evaluating the typographical error matter, the Bar Court claimed to have conducted an independent evaluation, but in supporting many of its conclusions, the court applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel to Fine's contempt conviction. A contempt conviction is essentially a criminal matter, and while the applicable standard of proof is more than adequate, other problems should have deterred using the contempt conviction to effect issue preclusion. California courts do apply collateral estoppel liberally, having abrogated the traditional requirement of mutuality, but liberality in the formal requirements must be balanced by greater exercise of judgment. When applying collateral estoppel, California law requires that the courts address whether the specific application of the doctrine serves the interest of justice. (People v. Taylor (1974) 12 Cal.3d 686, 695.) Collateral estoppel based on criminal judgments is controversial in jurisprudence and requires particular scrutiny.

Two considerations should have led the court to decline to collaterally estop Fine: incomplete finality of judgment and differential motive to defend. Collateral estoppel requires finality in the collaterally applied judgment, but criminal judgments necessarily lack a civil judgment’s degree of finality, because they are subject to collateral attack for reasons intrinsic to the case. Reasonably, if you suffer a criminal conviction, it may be reversed, if say, witnesses condemned you by committing perjury, whereas, in a civil case, you must attack the perjury in the case itself. Fine's allegations of de facto bribery of Superior Court Judges amounts to an allegation of intrinsic and extrinsic fraud, which warrants collateral attack, since Fine's conviction is only as strong as his underlying civil case against the County is weak. Since Fine was still contesting the civil action, the contempt conviction lacked the requisite finality. The other implicated criterion, equal incentive to defend, requires that Fine have the same motivation to litigate the contempt conviction as the disbarment. Unlike disbarment, contempt is not inherently ignominious. Disbarment, moreover, is a more serious penalty than spending three days in the local jail. Fine lacked the same motivation to defend the contempt action as the disbarment, and the contempt conviction, consequently, was not probative for his disbarment case.

The court offered no analysis of whether applying collateral estoppel to the contempt conviction served the interest of justice. The court would then have to consider Fine’s contentions. The State Bar Court’s disregard for respondent argument is damning in general but expressly unlawful when the court applies collateral estoppel.

1 comment:

GM said...

Great work Diamond. Sadly the war goes on to this day. perhaps the 9th will have the fortitude to put this to an end.