Opinion
Grading City Hall: See our report card for L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson
Opinion L.A.
Opinion Opinion L.A.

Newton: Targeting an L.A. judge

Last week, when a boy in Los Angeles foster care appeared before Judge Amy Pellman, she welcomed him warmly and clearly knew his history. Pellman asked how his martial-arts class was going, complimented him on his grades and urged him to enroll in a program that would help prepare him for college.

Another case that morning involved a 19-year-old woman preparing to emancipate from foster care. She boasted of keeping her grade-point average above 3.0; Pellman called that "awesome."

And when Pellman saw two boys at the back of the court stirring restlessly, she asked if either would like a teddy bear or a book. "A book," one replied. "Right answer," she said, and pointed him to a shelf full of choices.

That's the way Pellman's court works. It's all about the needs of children, unsurprising given Pellman's background. Before becoming a judge in 2008, she served for five years as the legal director for the Alliance for Children's Rights. She's written extensively about children and the law, focusing most specifically on the foster-care system. In 2003, the American Bar Assn. gave her its Child Advocacy Law Award.

So Pellman seems an unlikely candidate to be accused of endangering children. But that's exactly what is happening as part of a strange battle between her and the L.A. Department of County Counsel, whose lawyers lately have been routinely filing papers to remove Pellman from cases they handle. The challenges do not require explanation, so the reasons behind them are a bit murky. But the county counsel has succeeded in having Pellman taken off many cases in recent weeks, and that in turn has forced other judges at the Los Angeles Dependency Court to absorb her load.

James Owens, an assistant county counsel who oversees the office's Dependency Division, declined to comment in detail about the Pellman case, saying, "We don't discuss judges in public." He also declined to say precisely how often lawyers with his office have filed motions to remove Pellman. Producing such a number, he said, "would take a lot of work." He did allow that the objections have been filed "frequently."

Others familiar with the conflict said county lawyers believe that Pellman is too skeptical of the Department of Children and Family Services and, over the objections of social workers, too willing to return children to homes where there has been domestic violence.

Whether to return children in foster care to their parents is one of the toughest issues dependency judges have to deal with. Foster care is rarely a good long-term solution, and reunification can be the best option if the custodial parent has taken responsibility for ensuring a safe environment for the child. On the other hand, returning a child to an unsafe situation can result in tragedy — and it has on more than one occasion in Los Angeles County.

Pellman would not comment on the challenges being filed against her, but I've watched her handle several dozen cases in recent months, courtesy of a new openness that prevails in Los Angeles Dependency Court since Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash opened the courthouse to the press earlier this year.

At least in my experience, Pellman is the opposite of reckless with the fates of the children before her. To the contrary, she's attentive and efficient and demonstrably engaged in the lives of children. Her bench is bracketed by teddy bears, and a SpongeBob SquarePants tapestry covers one courtroom wall. Last week, one young woman who's in foster care complained to Pellman that she'd gone without the right eyeglasses since early this year and that when her foster home was changed, her clothes were left behind. The judge listened patiently and then admonished the child's social worker for the breakdown that has compounded the girl's troubles and prevented her from landing a summer job.

"I don't feel enough effort was put in," Pellman sternly remarked.

That kind of admonishment also is typical of Pellman. She's hard on social workers and on the lawyers who represent them. And she's been at odds with the Department of Children and Family Services for years, dating to her time with the alliance, when Pellman fought to close the county's orphanage and the department resisted. Given that history and her temperament, Pellman's defenders believe that the campaign against her is not really about defending children so much as it is about retaliating against a judge who's tough and sharp-tongued.

Nash concedes that the county counsel has the right to object to Pellman, but he's perplexed by the controversy. "She's professional and focused … a great lawyer, a great child advocate," Nash said. "She's not a nasty cuss like I was at times."

And as for the allegation that Pellman is putting children at risk? Nash did not mince words: "I just think that's ludicrous."

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • For L.A. Dependency Court, a first: the press

    For L.A. Dependency Court, a first: the press

    Opening dependency hearings to the press and public is good for kids.

  • Senate maneuvering spares Planned Parenthood -- for now

    Senate maneuvering spares Planned Parenthood -- for now

    A series of hidden-camera videos by anti-abortion activists capturing Planned Parenthood executives discussing tissue harvesting from aborted fetuses has renewed calls by Republicans to eliminate all federal support for the organization. But as bad as it's been lately in Washington for Planned...

  • Fast-tracking VA firings makes for bad policy

    Fast-tracking VA firings makes for bad policy

    The scandals that rocked the federal Department of Veterans Affairs last year rightly had some high-reaching consequences, including toppling secretary Eric K. Shinseki. Whether Shinseki’s successor, Robert McDonald, has been able to effect much of a cultural change within the department that provides,...

  • Can a Dear Cal letter get you into Berkeley?

    Can a Dear Cal letter get you into Berkeley?

    High school seniors vying for acceptance at UC Berkeley face daunting odds. Until about 50 years ago, Cal admitted any applicant with a B average in college-prep classes. As recently as 1985, the acceptance rate was above 50%. With a record 79,000 applicants in 2014, Berkeley now admits only 17%,...

  • Trans-Pacific Partnership must not undermine U.S. rules on intellectual property

    Trans-Pacific Partnership must not undermine U.S. rules on intellectual property

    U.S. negotiators recently concluded a 50-nation agreement to promote free trade in about 200 high-tech products, a pact that has drawn praise from seemingly all quarters. The goodwill generated by the new Information Technology Agreement may not last long, however. This week, negotiators may complete...

  • Drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea isn't worth the risk

    Drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea isn't worth the risk

    The Obama administration is being at least somewhat more cautious this time around in allowing Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea. The company must keep its drills from reaching the oil reserves until it has the equipment in place that can shut down a well in case...

Comments
Loading
69°