The state Supreme Court on Monday ordered the removal of a San Bernardino municipal judge, citing him for a series of angry outbursts and "a persistent pattern of abuse and arbitrary conduct" on the bench.
The justices, upholding a recommendation of the state Judicial Performance Commission, found Judge Kenneth L. Kloepfer responsible for 25 acts of misconduct--saying he repeatedly insulted lawyers, litigants and court aides; abused his powers of contempt; and failed to uphold the rights of criminal defendants.
The 47-year-old Kloepfer, a former San Bernardino county prosecutor elected to the municipal bench in 1980, became only the ninth judge to be ordered removed in the 29-year history of the commission. Two other judges have been involuntarily retired by the court.
The court rejected Kloepfer's plea that he be allowed to remain on the bench because his overall judicial temperament had been good and any past problems had been corrected.
"The (judge's) actions . . . cannot be characterized as occasional lapses or isolated instances of misconduct," the court said in an unsigned, 66-page opinion. "As the commission concluded, a persistent pattern of abuse and arbitrary conduct appears as to which admonition or censure would not be adequate."
Among other things, the court cited Kloepfer for ridiculing a prosecutor in open court and saying it was "frightening" to think she represented the people of California; groundlessly asking a defense attorney if she was "psychologically afraid" to take her case to trial; and displaying such hostility to a criminal defendant that his conviction was overturned on appeal because of the judge's behavior.
The justices also faulted Kloepfer for misusing the contempt power to order the jailing of a spectator who uttered an expletive after she tripped and struck her knee while leaving the courtroom.
As the woman regained her balance and began to walk out, Kloepfer told his bailiff to "grab that blonde lady for contempt of court," the justices said. She was handcuffed, taken to jail and served about an hour-and-a-half of a six-hour sentence before she was released.
Kloepfer explained later he had believed the expletive by the woman was a comment on the proceedings in court--and had he known it was a reflexive response he would not have found her in contempt. But the high court noted that the judge had sent the tearful woman to jail without first making any inquiry into the reason for the remark.
The judge, who has been suspended with pay since last year, was not available for comment. His attorney declined comment pending receipt of the court's opinion.
The commission began an investigation into Kloepfer's conduct on the bench after receiving complaints in April, 1985. Three years later, after closed hearings by a three-member special panel, the commission voted 5 to 3 to urge his removal for repeated incidents of misconduct.
Kloepfer challenged the recommendation, contending removal was far too harsh a punishment. He also claimed his rights had been violated because of excessive delay in the inquiry and said the neutrality of the commission had been undermined by the undue influence of its staff.
In Monday's action, the justices systematically rejected the judge's contentions and went on to find his removal was warranted by "a persistent pattern of rude, abusive and hostile behavior" and misuse of the law in his courtroom from 1981 to 1986.