Thursday, October 4, 2007

Judge Removed from California Courts

California DUI criminal defense attorney news

California's Commission on Judicial Performance on Tuesday ordered an incorrigible clutter bug removed from the Riverside County bench.

Superior Court Judge Robert Spitzer's "inexcusable delays, failure to act and gross neglect of court orders demonstrates an unwillingness or inability to perform judicial functions," commission Chairman Frederick Horn wrote in the unanimous order.

Spitzer, a 17-year veteran of the Riverside courts, was charged with eight counts of judicial misconduct stemming from accusations that he backdated court orders, failed to dispose of cases promptly, filed "at least" 70 false salary affidavits and conducted improper ex parte conversations.

The judge's courtroom and chambers were routinely "in shambles," and because files were "strewn about without any discernible organization," they were often lost or misplaced, the commission found.

In hearings before a panel of special masters and the commission earlier this year, Spitzer conceded that he had trouble organizing his work but insisted that he was undergoing therapy and changing courtroom procedures to fix the problems.

But commissioners noted that, after they had threatened him in 2003 with a public admonishment for similar troubles, Spitzer had assured them that he would change his ways.

"We have no confidence in his ability to conform to standards of judicial conduct," the commission said.

Spitzer's attorney, Reginald Vitek of Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek in San Diego, did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Presiding Judge Richard Fields of the Riverside County Superior Court said Spitzer left his courtroom Tuesday morning after learning of the commission's order.

"He is absolutely one of the hardest-working judges I've ever met," Fields said. "The loss of such an experienced judicial officer at this very critical point in this court's history is going to be felt by many people."

Fueled by Riverside County's enormous population growth, the courts have a backlog of civil cases and officials have struggled to keep up with the criminal calendars. Chief Justice Ronald George recently dispatched two dozen judges from around the state to Riverside to help process felony cases.

Fields said he's asked the Administrative Office of the Courts for an assigned judge to take on Spitzer's courtroom.

Spitzer, 58, cited the county's crushing caseload as one of the reasons he fell behind in his work. But commissioners said it was more than the judge's "chronic state of disorganization" that led to his troubles.

Investigators said Spitzer appeared to backdate his signature on numerous orders before giving them to his clerk for processing. The commission found that in one case, City of Moreno Valley v. Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), Spitzer received a proposed judgment on May 6, 2003 but didn't act until June 9, 2004, when he signed the judgment, backdated the document July 3, 2003 and file-stamped it July 7, 2003.

An appellate court tossed out SCAG's appeal in August 2004 on the grounds that agency leaders had waited too long -- 13 months according to Spitzer's signature -- to file. SCAG has not resubmitted their appeal.

In another case, Spitzer forgot to file a decision entirely. The judge heard a small claims case in 1996 and, despite numerous complaints from the parties involved, never issued a ruling. It was only after the plaintiff's mother, a potential juror in an unrelated case, complained to Spitzer in 2002 that Spitzer conducted a new trial and finally issued a ruling.

Commissioners said Spitzer's delays in closing cases led him to file false affidavits saying that he had no cases outstanding for more than 90 days, something judges must do regularly to receive their paychecks.

The commission also criticized Spitzer for improper behind-the-scenes meddling in cases. In 2004, the judge lobbied prosecutors to charge a defendant with manslaughter and not murder in a DUI case. The district attorney declined and after a jury deadlocked, Spitzer brought the victim's mother into his office and, according to investigators, encouraged her to persuade the DA to pursue manslaughter charges.

Spitzer told the special masters that he was only trying to comfort and to educate the mother and that he never meant to suggest that she lobby the prosecutor for reduced charges.

"Attempting to convince a mother whose child was killed by a drunk driver that her child's death was unintentional by reference to Penal Codes, legal terminology, and sentence calculations reflects an alarming lack of sensitivity in addition to being extraordinarily inappropriate and unjudicial," Horn wrote on behalf of the commission.

Spitzer is the third judge the commission has ordered removed from office in the last 10 months. Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Diana Hall was ousted in December 2006 after the commission found that she had violated campaign finance laws, received two misdemeanor convictions for DUI and improperly questioned a prosecutor's motives. And commissioners removed Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jose Velasquez in April for denying defendants due process, making inappropriate comments in court and improperly issuing bench warrants.