U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer was accused by an attorney Monday of meeting with representatives of her former law firm and assuring them she would continue to preside over a Church of Scientology case even if the firm accepted an offer to represent the church in the suit.
The accusation was made before Pfaelzer in open court by Century City attorney Joseph Yanny, who once represented Scientology in the lawsuit and is now fighting church efforts to question him. Yanny has been accused by the church of providing ex-Scientologists with confidential information he obtained while representing the church. He has denied the allegation.
Yanny, who was in court to fight a deposition demand, said Pfaelzer met in February with two representatives of her former firm--Wyman, Bautzer, Kuchel & Silbert--who were seeking assurances from the judge that she would not relinquish control of the Scientology case.
Such an assurance was important, Yanny contended, because the church had said it would not hire the firm if it meant losing Pfaelzer, who had issued rulings favorable to Scientology.
The lawsuit pits Scientology against church defectors who left to form their own brand of Scientology. The church alleges that former Scientologists conspired to steal and distribute secret church courses. Yanny contended that Pfaelzer violated Canon 3 of the Judicial Code of Conduct, which governs the conduct of federal judges. It states, in part: “A judge shall . . . neither initiate nor consider ex parte . . . communications on the merits or procedures affecting the merits of a pending or impending proceeding.”
Pfaelzer, once a partner in the law firm, did not respond from the bench to Yanny’s charge. She declined to discuss the matter outside the courtroom.
However, a federal court source told The Times that a Wyman, Bautzer attorney visited the judge’s chambers when the firm had just been approached to represent Scientology. Pfaelzer agreed to the meeting without knowing that the lawyer wanted to ask her about the issue of her bowing out, the source said.
Nor did she know, according to the source, that the firm was being considered to represent Scientology.
Pfaelzer reportedly told the lawyer what she later repeated in open court--that she saw no need to remove herself from the case because she had left Wyman, Bautzer 10 years earlier; that her husband, former MGM studio head Frank Rothman, also had left the firm, and that she no longer had a financial interest in it.
When the other side persisted in its objections, however, Pfaelzer did briefly remove herself from the case, but took it again after Wyman, Bautzer stopped representing Scientology in that case.
Sources close to Pfaelzer said her major reason for taking the case again was to avoid dumping the complicated, 26-volume legal proceeding on another judge.
Yanny said he learned of the meeting from one of the participants, Los Angeles attorney Skip Miller.
“I have it from Skip Miller himself that he went along with another partner with Wyman, Bautzer to visit Mariana Pfaelzer,” Yanny said. “The church wanted to hire Wyman, Bautzer but wouldn’t if it jeopardized her staying on the case.
“It was a very lucrative deal for the firm,” he continued. “As a matter of fact, Skip Miller told me it (Scientology) was the biggest client they had.”
Miller declined comment when contacted by The Times.
Yanny also recalled a conversation he had with a high-ranking Scientologist named Warren McShane, who, he said, informed him that Wyman, Bautzer was coming into the case.
“I said, ‘That’s a good firm,’ but I said, ‘I think you’re going to end up losing Judge Pfaelzer.’ He said, ‘No we won’t. I already have assurances we will not.’ ”
McShane, through an attorney, denied having the conversation.
In court Monday, Yanny confronted Pfaelzer while she sat on the bench.
“Do you admit you had a meeting with the Wyman, Bautzer firm?” Yanny asked. “If you did have that meeting, I’m going to ask you to (remove) yourself.”
Instead, she repeatedly told Yanny he should file a motion stating his reasons for wanting her removed and it would be ruled upon.