O.C. attorneys group criticizes D.A. for 'inappropriate' treatment of judge

O.C. attorneys group criticizes D.A. for 'inappropriate' treatment of judge
O.C. Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, shown in 2013. The Orange County Bar Assn. denounced repeated attempts by the district attorney's office to have a Superior Court judge removed from cases. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County Bar Assn. has denounced repeated attempts by the Orange County district attorney's office to disqualify a judge from cases, calling such tactics "excessive" and a possible affront to the whole judiciary.

According to court records, Orange County prosecutors have asked to disqualify Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals in 57 cases since February 2014. Over the three previous years, court records show prosecutors submitted five disqualification requests.

With no explanation needed, prosecutors can invoke Section 170.6 of the state's code of civil procedure to get a judge tossed from a case on grounds that he or she is "prejudiced."

But the county bar association found this so-called papering of Goethals enough to warrant a formal condemnation.

"The excessive use of Section 170.6 … can give the appearance of being designed as punitive and retaliatory and going beyond the realm of appropriate criticism," the bar association's resolution, which was released Monday, said.

The district attorney's office took exception to the bar's resolution, saying in a statement that "there is no, and never has been, a concerted effort to punish a sitting judge by the Orange County district attorney's office."

Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney's chief of staff, said in a statement that it was "unfortunate" the bar had relied on a media account of the disqualifications rather than contacting prosecutors directly. Schroeder previously disputed the statistics — supplied by the Orange County Superior Court's public information office — that prosecutors had papered Goethals only five times from 2011 to 2013. She said she believed this "anecdotally."

The increasing disqualifications coincided with Goethals' allowing of hearings on whether prosecutors and jailers misused a jailhouse informant program.

Last month, the judge removed the district attorney's office from the death penalty phase of the trial of mass shooter Scott Dekraai, concluding that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to the defense.

"Certain aspects of the district attorney's performance in this case might be described as a comedy of errors but for the fact that it has been so sadly deficient," Goethals wrote in his ruling.

The state attorney general's office would have handled the death penalty phase of Dekraai's trial, but the office is appealing Goethals' decision.

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Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.