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California courts paid at least $500,000 to resolve sex harassment suits against judges and employees

California's court system paid more than $500,000 over seven years to resolve sexual harassment complaints against judges and staff, according to records released Friday.

In response to a public records request by The Times, the Judicial Council, the rule-making body for the court system, said it paid $296,000 to resolve three complaints against judges for alleged sexual harassment and $225,000 to settle two lawsuits against court staff.

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In addition, the council reported spending $79,750 since 2010 for outside attorney-investigators to look into sexual harassment allegations or other complaints against five judges.

The Judicial Council's brief response to The Times' request, citing attorney-client privilege and a court rule, did not reveal the names of the courts, judges or employees alleged to have been involved in the sexual harassment.

The response came from the council's legal services division. The council acts as a lawyer for the courts in addition to doling out state money to county courts and providing services.

"Your request raises complicated legal and ethical issues, including attorney-client privilege and other legal and ethical obligations," the response said.

It added that the council was contacting the courts and individuals it represented to determine whether they would waive their privilege to allow the actual legal records to be released.

By contrast, the California Legislature last month disclosed 18 cases of sexual harassment involving lawmakers and staff, and identified the names of the legislators involved.

The legislative records, released in response to a separate public records request by The Times, disclosed details about resolved cases where the allegations were determined to be well-founded.

The more than $500,000 that the Judicial Council reported spending is likely less than the actual cost to taxpayers of resolving sexual harassment complaints against judges and staff.

County courts can resolve such cases themselves without reporting to the statewide council.

Although the council revealed no names, the California Commission on Judicial Performance has identified errant judges in the past, and a news organization reported a settlement last year.

One of the settlements paid by the Judicial Council stemmed from a lawsuit against former Tulare County Superior Court Judge Valeriano Saucedo.

He was ordered removed from the bench in late 2015 for inappropriate behavior with his court clerk, who sued him.

Kevin J. Little, who represented Priscilla Tovar, Saucedo's clerk, said Friday that the terms of the settlement in Tovar's suit prevented him from disclosing anything about what she might have recovered. The suit charged Saucedo with making inappropriate and unwanted sexual overtures.

The Commission on Judicial Performance, the watchdog agency for judges, called for Saucedo's removal after finding that he pressed his clerk to be his "special friend," gave her $26,000 in gifts and cash and lied about his behavior to investigators.

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The Courthouse News Service also reported that the state paid $100,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought against Lassen County Superior Court Judge Tony R. Mallery.

A Lassen County court executive had charged Mallery with screaming and yelling at female employees and hugging a defendant in open court.

Neither Mallery nor the court admitted wrongdoing in the settlement.

In December, court officials confirmed that Presiding Justice Conrad Rushing of the San Jose-based Court of Appeal faced allegations of bigotry, sexual harassment and discrimination against women when he retired last year.

Cathal Conneely, a spokesman for the California Supreme Court, called the "limited number" of reported incidents "still too many."

"California has robust judicial ethics programs with a Code of Ethics, ongoing training, access to guidance and an independent state agency responsible for investigating complaints of judicial misconduct," Conneely said. "We continue to strive to be responsive to the workplace needs of public servants at every level of the court system."

Twitter: @mauradolan

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