83rd Installment. Fine Finally Free: What's the Real Lesson about California Judges?
The Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail has released Richard Fine, held in coercive confinement for 18 months for disobeying a court order to disclose his financial records. Fine’s intransigence was a victory only in a personal sense. Although speculation about Judge Yaffe’s motives in ordering the release is rife in the Fine camp, Yaffe ordered Fine’s release because he's retiring; he isn’t retiring because of the Fine situation.
Judge Yaffe’s stage-managed retirement illustrates why you don’t have to invent judicial conspiracies to apprehend judges’ ethical hypocrisy, despite their being frequent impugners of lawyers’ ethical integrity. Yaffe is mounting a runaround of the California constitutional provisions that democratically check the governor’s power to appoint judges by subjecting them to retention elections. (Cal. Const., Article VI, section (c).) He will exploit the loophole exempting interim appointments from this requirement. Had Yaffe resigned a month later at the end of his term, a retention election would check the governor in filling the vacancy.
Judge Yaffe is an egregious judicial officer, but we would unjustly condemn him for gratuitously resigning a public trust (remember, he's a superior-court judge, not Sarah Palin). We would treat him unfairly by singling him out even for circumventing a constitutionally authorized legislative check on executive power. He isn’t exceptional in staging this travesty, for it’s the norm; nor is this flaunting of partisanship likely to change any appointment—making the judges’ crass sell-out to petty partisanship more degrading.
Since Yaffe wants to retire because he's old, and opportunistic early resignation is customary among our half-civilized judges, lawyers will immediately understand why Yaffe released Fine. Yaffe definitely became aware of the portending scrutiny by a new judge, since Fine had just moved for re-assignment based on Yaffe's impending retirement. Informal norms press judges to wrap up business before retiring, to avoid making work for other judges. Fine’s motions and appeals could harm Yaffe’s reputation, under a judge who’s irritated with the chore. Enjoying less personal influence after he retires, Yaffe should even fear reversal.
Some of Fine’s supporters, including the always truth-disrespecting Leslie Dutton, base their conspiracy theory on a claim found in Fine's briefs, asserting a U.S. Constitutional limit of five-days confinement for contempt. Dutton even invented an acronym for the hearing that supposedly should have enforced this nonexistent limitation: “FARR hearing”: her complete confusion about a case where the petitioner bore a similar surname. (See Farr v. Pitchess (1973) 409 U.S. 1243.) This falsehood disserved Fine by implying that coercive confinement is an illegal, aberrant practice victimizing Fine alone, whereas it's really an ensconced threat to lawyers and the public. As far as any pressures promoting Fine’s release, the contents of Judge Yaffe’s order support the import of the length of Fine's confinement, the only issue where Yaffe's order revealed vulnerability.
Fine and his supporters, wrapped up in these confusions or prevarications, led with their untenable fraud-by-the-courts theory.
This Fine–Judicial Watch theory doesn’t itself scare members of the state-bar establishment, but the course of events does nonplus them. The California Supreme Court’s motion to dismiss Fine's civil lawsuit denigrates Fine's legal theory, through the office of that court’s attorneys, Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham:
Although Fine trumpets the various actions that he has filed against judicial officers as evidence of his successful prosecution of alleged judicial corruption, he has never prevailed in any attempt to disqualify a judicial officer (state or federal) based solely on the receipt of “local judicial benefits.” [Citations.] Moreover, Fine’s reliance on his strained interpretation of Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, 167 Cal.App.4th 630 (2008) is without legal or factual support. The Sturgeon decision specifically found that the payment of local judicial benefits was neither a waste of taxpayer money nor a basis to seek recusal of a judicial officer receiving such benefits. [Citation.] (“Defendant, The Supreme Court of California's Notice of Motion and Motion to Dismiss Complaint,” p. 3, fn.2 [http://tinyurl.com/33amqcz].)
This language shows both the courts' distance from Fine’s interpretation of Sturgeon v. Los Angeles County and, despite the legal unformidability of Fine’s “strained” theory, their wish to forgo stock taking. As Savannah S. Winslow points out in the pro-Fine blog Right Trumps Might, Sturgeon made no specific findings on recusal! The Legislature’s failed attempt toimmunize Councilmen and judges retroactively for providing and accepting the unlawful benefits points to the same avoidance. While grant of immunity doesn't prove grantees' criminal guilt or civil liability (contrary to Fine and supporters), it demonstrates an appearance of impropriety. The Legislature immunized the parties to avoid litigation, not necessarily liability, but the Legislators expected citizens to litigate only because the benefits appeared improper.
Contrary to the tenor of the California Supreme Court’s attorneys’ comment, Fine struck effectively, if blindly, against the California judiciary'smoral authority
and,for some correct reasons, damaged the Los Angeles judiciary’s reputation. While the judges broke no criminal law and committed no tort, they created an appearance of impropriety by accepting a contribution they knew was probably illegal (what with their being judges). Out of some 400 judges in Los Angeles County, none refused the benefits or protested to bring the remuneration scheme within the state’s administrative-law provisions. During some twenty years of receiving these legally dubious benefits, the judges allowed the practice to continue.
No judge, not one, brought analytic acumen or ethical sensitivity to bear on this irregular practice, where the judges personally benefited. Even as applied to judges, a principled ethical code would sanction only actual impropriety, not its mere appearance, but most jurisdictions’ codes of legal ethics and all codes of judicial conduct impose a duty to avoid the appearance of impropriety, a norm most judges accept. kanBARoo court alone pinpoints the moral contradiction of hundreds of judges who lived comfortably with impropriety’s appearance, while they endorsed the no-appearance-of-impropriety standard; the judges know the public recognizes their hypocrisy.