Four months after taking over the Los Angeles Municipal Court system, Presiding Judge Maxine Freddie Thomas is being pelted by unprecedented criticism from numerous fellow jurists who claim she is using the court as her own “personal property” to enhance her election bid for Superior Court in June.
The judges claim Thomas, 38, the first black woman to head the court, has undermined efficiency and morale by pushing programs likely to get her publicity, with little regard for their impact on the court.
They charge she has rewarded her friends on the court with the meatier bench assignments and punished others by relegating them to posts considered less appealing.
Moreover, they say, she has failed to properly administer court affairs, neglecting many of her duties to campaign for office. Judges say she is frequently absent when court decision need to be made. “She just disappears,” one jurist said. “It’s total chaos.”
“In the 15 years I’ve been on the bench, we have never had dissension like we have on this court right now,” said George Trammell, the assistant presiding judge. “We’ve never had the polarization we have now.”
Criticism has grown so virulent that one judge said an “informal phone survey” is being conducted to determine if there are sufficient votes among the court’s 80 judges to mount a recall. A majority of the judges must approve such a drastic step.
Calling the charges unwarranted, Thomas says court efficiency has improved under her guidance, especially in the criminal area, where more cases are being disposed of before trial.
“I see (this) as pure petty jealousies,” she said of the criticism. “There are a few people who set out to destroy me and destroy the court . . . I think you will find it’s a minority, a vocal minority.”
Others, however, claim a majority of judges are disenchanted with Thomas. One estimated her supporters at fewer than a dozen.
Speaking on the condition that they would not be identified, several judges said Thomas has transformed what is normally a low-profile one-year term into an “imperial reign.”
“Normally I don’t have any problem in putting my name to what I think,” said one judge. “But I think everyone in the court has learned in the past few months that assignments are based on who is popular. She is . . . vengeful. She scares people.”
“I think the only reason she hasn’t been impeached . . .,” said another judge, “is that (the judges) feel badly to see this happen to a black woman.
The judge, who is black, added: “If you’re black and say anything negative, you’re jealous. If you’re white, you’re a racist.”
The judges decided to air their grievances only after Thomas announced in March that she was running for the Superior Court bench. During her campaign for presiding judge, she pledged she would not do so.
“The turning point was when she broke that commitment about running. That was the last straw,” one of the judges said. “She’s been lying to us all this time. (We’re) not going to protect her anymore.”
Criticism of Thomas began to mount with her formal installation ceremony.
The highly publicized event, staged during Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday celebrations in January, drew some of California’s top legal officials and cost almost $3,000. A memo from court administrator Edward Kritzman said no other presiding judge had held even an informal installation before Thomas.
In a poll taken after the installation by the court’s executive committee, 43 judges felt the event should never be repeated, nine felt the decision should be the presiding judge’s, five were neutral and only two judges were in favor. The rest did not respond.
“It was just a rather large event which appeared to consume a lot of resources,” said Judge Richard Paez, a member of the executive committee. “It was far beyond a regular new judge enrobing ceremony.” Another judge called it a “total embarrassment.”
Thomas said the event was not a showcase for herself but was staged to “create a positive image for the court. Other (governmental bodies) have installation ceremonies. I didn’t see why it would be inappropriate here.”
And Thomas said she decided to run for Superior Court, well after the ceremony, at the urging of her 85-year-old mother, who was seriously ill.
“My mother said to me right out of the clear blue sky, ‘Why aren’t you running for the higher court?’ She asked me to consider it. I said I would.”
The criticism grew weeks later when Thomas took the preliminary hearing of Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez from Judge Candace Cooper, one of the court’s most highly regarded magistrates. Thomas said she did so because of Cooper’s heavy courtroom calendar. Cooper had once opposed Thomas for an elective office on the court.
“As far as I’m concerned, I had no calendar problems,” Cooper said this week. “It was unprecedented in that no case especially assigned, to my knowledge, had ever been transferred over the judge’s objections. I don’t think the reasons she’d given were correct.”
Thomas also has been criticized for giving high-profile jobs to friends. Last week, for example, Cooper’s “long-cause” preliminary hearing calendar, which includes high-visibility criminal cases, was turned over to Judge Leon Kaplan, who used to date Thomas and still considers himself a friend. Kaplan, who is also running for Superior Court, said, “If people are saying this was done as favoritism because of the election, that is absolutely ridiculous.”