U.S. Judge Real Loses Appeal in Yagman Case
The Supreme Court refused Monday to get involved in a three-way court feud in Los Angeles, rejecting a bid by an angry federal judge seeking to punish a troublesome attorney.
In April, a federal appeals court called a halt to the bitter dispute between Chief U.S. District Judge Manuel Real and Los Angeles lawyer Stephen Yagman after Real had slapped Yagman with a $250,000 fine for alleged misconduct. Saying the “appearance of justice” had suffered because of the repeated clashes between the judge and lawyer, the appeals panel ordered that another judge be assigned to consider Yagman’s case.
But Real contended that the appeals court had no warrant for taking the case away from him and urged the Supreme Court to intervene. Instead, the justices in a brief order Monday rejected the appeal, and Real ordered the case assigned to an other judge within hours of the court’s ruling.
The high court dismissal represents another setback for Real, the chief judge in the Central District of California.
Earlier this year, Real was forced to remove himself from a criminal fraud case against Sears, Roebuck & Co. after a yearlong standoff with the 9th Circuit judges, who reversed his dismissal of criminal charges in the case on three occasions and eventually ordered him to assign the 1980 case to a new judge.
The present case grew out of the 1981 death of Cal State Long Beach football player Reginald Ronell Settles in a Signal Hill jail cell. The police and then-Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi said Settles had hanged himself, but his parents and friends suspected that the police may have choked him during a scuffle.
When two doctors employed by the parents conducted a second autopsy and told a press conference that the injuries were “atypical for a suicidal hanging,” Yagman filed a defamation suit on behalf of two Signal Hill policemen.
Acting as the trial judge, Real noted that neither officer had been mentioned during the press conference, and he quickly dismissed the suit. He also reprimanded Yagman for his “minimal or non-existent” understanding of the facts of the case and assessed him the $250,000 fine.
In an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Yagman charged Real with “a judicial mugging.” The judge had “exhibited a strong personal bias” against him and Real’s conduct of the trial was “one-sided and arbitrary,” Yagman charged.
The three-judge panel rejected both the lawyer’s charge of unfairness and the judge’s huge fine against the lawyer.
“This case has had an unbecoming quality from its beginning,” wrote appellate Judge J. Blaine Anderson. “We do not appreciate nor condone the attorney bickering and misconduct. . . . Nevertheless, the massive sanction award and the numerous allegations of bias and overreaching have combined with this poor lawyering to produce an entirely unfortunate end result: The fragile appearance of justice has taken a beating.”
“It is time to conclude the matter as quickly and as painlessly as possible. We feel this can be best accomplished by a new, randomly selected judge,” Anderson said.
Real responded by appealing this decision, first to the 9th Circuit for a reconsideration and then to the Supreme Court, arguing that the independence of the trial judiciary is at risk when a judge can be removed from a case in which he has demonstrated no bias or conflict. The high court order in Real vs. Yagman, 87-250 means that another judge must decide whether Yagman will be fined.
Real said Monday he had no comment on the high court’s decision.
“I’m disappointed,” said Real’s lawyer, Don Smaltz. “I think this is a very significant issue that directly involves the judiciary, and why the Supreme Court decided not to hear it, only they know. It’s a big mystery to me.”
Yagman said he is confident that no sanctions will be imposed by the new judge hearing the case.
“It’s good to know that the U.S. Supreme Court is willing to enforce American principles of justice against a powerful federal judge in Los Angeles who consistently has refused to abide by the rules of the American system of justice,” Yagman said.
“Judge Real has always behaved as though he is the law, and of course he is not. He’s supposed to enforce the law,” Yagman added.
On Monday, the justices also rejected a challenge to California’s law limiting jury awards in medical malpractice cases. A woman who suffered brain damage from anesthesiology during a routine operation won a $5-million judgment against the doctor, $2 million of which covered her “pain and suffering.” But a 1975 state law limits such “pain and suffering” awards to $250,000. The woman’s attorneys contended that the law is unconstitutional, but the justices refused to hear the appeal. (Green vs. Franklin, 87-637.)