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Aguirre Trial Conduct Not Improper, Judge Says

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Monday denied a request that attorney Michael Aguirre be ordered to pay $79,000 in sanctions to court rivals who charged that the flamboyant lawyer engaged in outrageous behavior during a civil trial last summer. Aguirre contended the allegations were politically motivated.

Ruling that Aguirre’s conduct in a case in which he was suing the estate of a deceased real estate agent on behalf of 133 investors was not unethical, Judge James Malkus rejected a motion by attorneys Louis Goebel and James Caputo seeking the sanctions against Aguirre.

In court documents, Goebel and Caputo charged that Aguirre’s conduct--which, they said, included “bullying” a judge, protesting a court clerk’s conduct and attacking the integrity of a courtroom bailiff--resulted in a mistrial after 5 1/2 costly weeks.

Denying the allegations, Aguirre contended that the legal proceedings were designed primarily to undermine his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the San Diego City Council last fall. Specifically, Aguirre charged that the sanctions motion was a political ploy by supporters of Bob Filner, one of his opponents--and the eventual victor--in the 8th District race, that was intended to embarrass him around the time of last September’s primary.

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“I’ve been vindicated, but I’ve still been hurt because of the political impact,” Aguirre said after Malkus’ ruling. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this was timed in a way to help Filner. If the objective was to hurt me politically, they accomplished that objective.”

At the time that the misconduct motion was filed last summer, Aguirre noted that Cheryl Shensa, one of Goebel’s law partners, had a Filner placard on her lawn and described the court filing as “dirty campaigning” on Filner’s part.

Filner, however, said that he did not know Shensa, was not involved in the filing of the misconduct allegations and knew nothing about the original investors’ lawsuit. In addition, both Shensa and Caputo denied that the court filing was politically motivated. Goebel could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Aguirre, though, pointed out that a hearing on the misconduct allegations originally was scheduled for Sept. 16, one day after the nine-candidate primary. Filner and Aguirre finished first and second, respectively, in the district primary, and Filner then went on to win the November citywide runoff, 54%-46%.

“The timing strikes me as more than just coincidence,” Aguirre said. “The charges were frivolous from the start. I didn’t do anything except represent my clients’ interests.”

The misconduct allegations stemmed from a real estate case in which Goebel and Caputo charged that Aguirre, known as a tenacious, sometimes abrasive courtroom advocate, engaged in “a long course of frivolous and harassing tactics” in order to overcome the “weakness” of his case. The focal point of the case is Aguirre’s clients’ allegation that several real estate salesmen and firms used fraudulent advertising and sales techniques to sell them undeveloped land in Texas.

Court transcripts show that the dispute began on the first day of the trial last June 29 when Aguirre, during a closed-door conference with Superior Court Judge Artie Henderson, complained that the judge had a bias against his clients and asked whether she had any ties to Goebel. In response, Henderson remarked that Aguirre regarded any ruling counter to his interests as evidence of “a personal vendetta” against him.

Aguirre later accused Henderson’s clerk and bailiff of behaving improperly during the trial and ultimately asked the judge to disqualify herself. Henderson did so on July 24, in the process noting Aguirre’s “personal attacks upon the court, the court clerk and bailiff, and how this trial has degenerated into something other than a trial to ascertain the facts of the case,” according to the clerk’s minutes of the meeting.

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Sworn statements from several of Aguirre’s clients state that, after Henderson left the bench, the court bailiff got into an argument with Aguirre, shouting at him while standing within inches of his face. According to the statements, the court clerk also approached Aguirre and said, “We can resolve this outside later this afternoon.”

Later, after discussions with Superior Court Judge Michael Greer, Aguirre withdrew his complaints against Henderson, the bailiff and clerk, and the two sides agreed that the trial would resume before Henderson. But by then, the judge had already dismissed the jury, prompting a lengthy delay in the case’s resumption. A hearing in the case is scheduled for next month.

In seeking to refute Goebel’s and Caputo’s allegations of misconduct, Aguirre pointed to his long record of court successes and argued that his opponents’ request for sanctions against him violated an agreement reached through Greer’s mediation.

“If there was unethical behavior in this case, it came from them, not me,” Aguirre said.

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During Monday’s hearing, Malkus sided with Aguirre, at least in regard to his conduct in the case.

“I did not find anything or any conduct by Mr. Aguirre that was violative of the rules (of conduct),” Malkus said in denying the lawyers’ request for sanctions.

His satisfaction with that ruling, Aguirre said, is tempered by his abiding belief that the misconduct motion proved to be more successful at the polls than in the courtroom.

“It’s one of those cases where you win, but, in a sense, you still lose,” Aguirre said. “I won in court but lost the election. But that’s the way the system works sometimes.”

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