O.C. Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas should halt filings against judge

Orange County D.A. should denounce prosecutors' filings against judge who took him off death penalty case

Kudos to the Orange County Superior Court judge who uncovered a long-standing pattern of misconduct in the district attorney’s office — so “sadly negligent,” according to the judge, that he took the extraordinary step of kicking the D.A.’s office off the case of the county’s highest-profile killer.

The misuse of paid jailhouse informants and the withholding of evidence by prosecutors who should have handed it over to defense attorneys had already led to reduced sentences for some convicted criminals. Now, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas and his staff have been removed from the death penalty phase of the trial for a former tugboat captain who pleaded guilty to gunning down eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon. The case was assigned instead to the state attorney general.

Rackauckas had that coming. The “chronic failure” of his office to turn over evidence, despite repeated orders to do so, tainted his ability to oversee the death penalty trial. To his credit, Rackauckas has admitted that his office erred, according to a report in the Orange County Register, though he has downplayed the seriousness of the offenses. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens similarly conceded the misuse of jailhouse informants. Meanwhile, at Rackauckas' request, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris has begun an investigation of the judge’s complaints, but she also has appealed the Superior Court ruling, saying that local prosecutors should continue to handle the death-penalty phase.

The last person who should be feeling any fallout from this is the judge himself. Yet Judge Thomas Goethals has recently been targeted by prosecutors in Rackauckas’ office who have filed paperwork to have him disqualified from their cases. Such filings are perfectly legal, originally intended to keep a case out of the hands of a judge who might be prejudiced, and no reason for doing so is required, making the process vulnerable to abuse. When it is done en masse, it’s called “papering the judge,” and it is at times intended to force a judge out of hearing criminal cases altogether and into civil trials.

The D.A.’s office says it’s not behind any purposeful effort to paper Goethals. But the actions against him sure quack and waddle like a vengeful duck. Over three years, 2011 to 2013, prosecutors filed such paperwork against him a total of five times. Since February 2014, when Goethals opened up a broad hearing into prosecutors’ actions, he has been papered 57 times.

This is ridiculous, a petty slur by prosecutors whose office was obviously in the wrong on repeated occasions.

Rackauckas deserves credit for requesting a state investigation, but he also should denounce the papering of the judge, both publicly and to the prosecutors who work for him. He should direct them not to seek Goethal’s disqualification unless they have a specific reason for doing so that pertains to the case in question, and he should require them to make the case to him first.

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March 23, 2:35 p.m.: This editorial was updated to reflect Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris' decision Friday to appeal and investigate the district attorney's office.

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