“Let’s face it, either you’re a wimp or you stand up for what you believe in,” says Pamela L. Iles, presiding judge of the South Orange County Municipal Court.
Iles, an aggressive, take-charge judge whose actions are shaking up the court’s once-rigid tradition, should know.
In little more than 2 1/2 years on the bench, she has feuded with the former presiding judge, engineered the dismissal of the court clerk-administrator and maintained a running battle with the head of the district attorney’s office at the courthouse in Laguna Niguel.
She has earned praise from fellow judges and lawyers for breathing fresh ideas and a more tolerant demeanor into a small court long known for its rigid courtroom procedures. Yet she also has incurred the wrath of some prosecutors, who dislike some of her methods and ideas and who don’t think they get a fair shake in her court.
“There are strong personalities on the court, and they’re not always going to agree with each other,” Iles said recently about the wrangling in the South Court. “But as long as it doesn’t interfere with our work, there’s no problem.
Now the presiding judge, Iles, 40, is changing the traditions of the four-judge court, and many people are privately cheering her on.
“She’s a good judge, hard-working and honest,” said one judge from another district who is temporarily filling a South Court vacancy. “She’s working awfully hard to improve that court, to change the rigid procedures that it alone adheres to.”
Laguna Niguel lawyer James S. Sweeney, a regular practitioner in South Court, added: “There’s a changing of the guard, so the court is kind of going through a change in personality.”
An 11th-hour appointee of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 1982, Iles brought to the court a decade of non-lawyer work and seven years of lawyer experience, mostly with the district attorney’s office.
A Long Beach native, Iles started out as an engineering research assistant at North American Rockwell while she was attending Cal State Fullerton in the mid-1960s. She earned a degree in art education but later began studies at Western State University School of Law in Fullerton.
Iles passed the bar in 1975 and joined the Orange County public defender’s office as a deputy in the Juvenile Court branch. Two years later, she moved to the district attorney’s office, where she represented abused children in Juvenile Court. She worked briefly in West and South courts and was part of the prosecutor’s newly formed sexual assaults unit for three months before Brown appointed her to the bench.
“She (Iles) had a lot of energy, a lot of empathy for her clients (children) and spent a lot of time on the job,” recalled Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler. Deputy Dist. Atty. John Cronin, who heads the prosecutor’s Juvenile Court office, added that Iles “did a good job trying cases” and was a “fine” prosecutor.
Once on the bench, Iles found a captive audience for her quick wit. She once noted, for example, that a defendant who had different dates of birth on various documents must have been “born again.”
However, Iles soon found herself chafing under the tight reins of then Presiding Judge John A. Griffin, whose hard-nosed approach to court business earned him the nickname “the Grifatollah.”
Iles, for example, refused to follow the court’s strict adherence to rules such as one prohibiting all delays or plea bargains sought by defense attorneys on the day of trial.
Rule Wasted Time
She believed the rule wasted court time and forced many cases to come to trial even though defendants were willing to plead guilty to charges after informal sentence negotiations, even on the day of trial.
Iles also contended the rule caused court backlogs that resulted, in part, in the dismissal of six cases that could not be brought to trial within the statutory time limits.
But Griffin was angered by her opposition and responded by refusing to assign Iles any criminal cases, which represent most of the court’s workload.
At one point last year, the two jurists got into a heated argument that ended with Iles loudly ordering Griffin out of her courtroom. Each filed complaints against the other with the state Commission on Judicial Performance, which disciplines judges. The commission, however, never acted on either complaint.
Iles, who said she had a high fever at the time of the argument, stressed she is now on good terms with Griffin, who retired last spring after suffering a stroke.
But the controversies were just beginning.
Iles has also taken the heat this month for the firing of James B. Harris, the court clerk and executive administrator since May, 1969.
The judge would not discuss the matter and Harris said little, but lawyers and judges on other courts disclosed that the two had not been getting along, as Harris usually looked to Griffin and Judge Blair T. Barnette for support of his actions.
A key confrontation developed March 4, when Harris refused to hire a particular secretary whom Iles had picked for the judges, according to Harris’ lawyer, John W. Prager Jr. of Santa Ana.
In letters to Harris and the county in June, Iles said the clerk had shown a “lack of judgment in the administration and management of court business” and was “a hindrance to the effective administration of the court.”
Iles’ first attempt to fire Harris was defeated in a 2-2 vote. But after Griffin retired, she renewed her efforts, prevailing with a 2-1 vote in June.
Harris left his post Aug. 15. The former clerk said he had been planning to retire at the end of the year and that his earlier departure had meant a “substantial” cut in benefits. Prager said he expects to file a lawsuit this week for Harris on a wrongful-termination claim.
Iles also has clashed repeatedly with Alphonsus C. (Nick) Novick, the deputy in charge of the district attorney’s South Court office.
Beyond the personalities involved, longtime court observers believe the friction is significant because it affects some of the thousands of defendants who appear each year in the South Court.
Last April, for instance, Novick rushed to Superior Court, asking for an order blocking Iles from holding a hearing to determine if he should be found in contempt of court.
According to Superior Court documents, Novick had given a Municipal Court judge information that may have been prejudicial to a defendant awaiting trial when the defense attorney was not present. Such one-party conversations with a judge are often forbidden by law and could be grounds for disqualifying a judge or reversing a conviction.
For her part, Iles said she only wanted to find out what had happened and whether any ethical rules had been violated. Though the Superior Court did not intervene, Iles did not proceed further with a hearing.
Novick’s boss, Assistant Dist. Atty. Edward J. Merrilees, defended his deputy. He said Novick thought it necessary to give the judge such information because he believed the defendant’s case was being improperly delayed and could have been dismissed for failing to come to trial within a statutory time limit.
In another incident, on July 25, Judge Richard D. Hamilton ruled that two of Novick’s deputies had to pay defense attorney Michael J. Naughton $700 in attorney’s fees for unnecessary trial delays. The district attorney’s office is appealing the ruling.
More important, some prosecutors were angered that the Naughton complaint was assigned at first to Iles. They believe she should have disqualified herself immediately because she had talked with Naughton about his intention to seek sanctions.
As a result, according to court testimony, a deputy district attorney had to file an “affidavit of prejudice"--an automatic, one-time right each side has to disqualify a judge in any matter--to get the case reassigned. Iles eventually appeared at the hearing as a witness for Naughton.
“The D.A. is taking the position that she (Iles) put me up to this, that she did this because of the feud with Novick,” said Naughton, a former South Court judge himself. “That is not the case. She didn’t know anything about the civil code section I was using to ask for sanctions. I acted because I was just getting ticked off with their procedures.”
Meanwhile, the friction continues. Many South Court prosecutors have lately begun disqualifying Iles from trials, claiming she treats them unfairly.
Merrilees said, for example, that Iles is acting improperly by allowing defendants at arraignments to plead guilty to charges and then sentencing them out of the presence of prosecutors. He explained that prosecutors can often provide valuable information to judges about defendants’ prior criminal histories before they are sentenced.
Iles, who says she is as tough on defendants as anyone, responded that prosecutors have specifically asked her not to order them to appear at such arraignments.
She said deputy district attorneys typically do not show up at arraignments in other municipal courts, and added: “I find it unusual that the prosecutors do not complain about other judges who engage in this common practice.”
On another issue, Merrilees criticized Iles’ actions to divert first-time offenders to various rehabilitation programs during arraignments in minor cases. Typically, the court agrees to dismiss charges if defendants complete these programs.
Merrilees said his office generally opposes such programs, claiming they have not been proven effective and constitute leniency “across the board.”
However, Iles defended such programs and criticized the district attorney’s office for opposing her efforts to implement an innovative diversion program for elderly shoplifters who have not committed any crimes previously.
“A woman immigrant here 12 years is 57 years old, on welfare and taking care of her quadriplegic daughter,” the judge said.
“She didn’t have any money for a birthday gift, and she stole a nightgown so she could give her daughter a birthday gift. The woman has no prior record, and under state law I can divert her to another program instead of convicting her.”
“The D.A. sees me as a person who uses too much discretion, and they don’t like it when judges begin inventing things,” Iles said, pointing out that the district attorney’s office has approved a diversion program for drug users but will not consider one for petty thieves.
Sometimes the infighting can seem downright petty. In bucking Iles’ attempts to change some procedures, for instance, Novick opposed her on changing the location of pretrial meetings.
One consequence of these disputes is that defense lawyers end up tangling with prosecutors more in South Court and going to trial more than anywhere else in Orange County, said Laguna Niguel lawyer Gilbert May.
Novick acknowledged that he and his deputies do not offer much of a bargain in pleas. On his office walls is a plaque with a caveman-type club and the phrase “Plead or Go to Trial.”
Last year, each of the four South Court judges handled an average of 1,335 trials, while the 10 judges on the West Orange County Municipal Court in Westminster, which has the next biggest trial calendar, presided over 1,245 trials each.
Novick and Merrilees said the high number of trials is caused by the strict court rule that Griffin had enforced to prohibit delays or plea bargains on the day of trial. They said Iles has been making more exceptions to the rule than other judges did in the past.
Whatever the cause, the trial docket and other statistics prompted South Court judges to ask for a new judgeship position. But the state Judicial Council, which recommends the need for additional seats to legislators, decided last April that the court’s workload did not justify another slot.
Iles and her colleagues are resubmitting their request, though Iles knows that Gov. George Deukmejian’s replacement for Griffin and his candidate for any new slot would likely be more aligned with Griffin’s traditions.
While they wait, the South Court judges said they look forward to smoother times. They must hire a new clerk-administrator and will soon be working with a new prosecutor-in-charge. Novick, 60, said he is retiring at the end of the year.
“One of the good things about South Court is that we work very hard,” Iles said. “Like any bureaucracy in a high-volume situation dealing with people, differences arise and they get worked out.”