Judicial Panel Strives for Open Misconduct Hearings


The state Judicial Council has moved to clear the legal obstacles that have blocked implementation of a constitutional amendment allowing public hearings into charges of misconduct against California judges.

An Orange County case involving Harbor Municipal Court Judge Calvin P. Schmidt caused the delay in implementing public hearings. Schmidt, who was under investigation for misconduct, successfully challenged open public hearings, arguing that the Judicial Council must first set up procedural rules.

The council, the rule-making arm of the judiciary, adopted new guidelines authorizing open proceedings before the state Judicial Performance Commission, the watchdog agency that investigates complaints involving the state's 1,460 jurists.

Jack E. Frankel, chief counsel of the commission, on Tuesday welcomed the adoption of the rules, saying they appeared to satisfy procedural objections that have prevented public hearings from being held under the amendment.

"We didn't think the rules were needed, but as long as questions were raised, they will put the issue to rest," Frankel said.

The amendment, passed by the Legislature and then approved by the voters in November, 1988, as Proposition 92, permitted the commission to make public its heretofore-confidential proceedings for the first time.

But last summer, when the commission first sought to hold open hearings in the case of Schmidt, the judge filed suit, contending that the Judicial Council must adopt procedural rules implementing the amendment before proceedings could be held publicly.

The commission argued that the amendment was self-implementing and rules were not necessary--but an Orange County judge agreed with Schmidt and barred open hearings. The commission appealed, saying that preventing open hearings despite passage of the amendment would undermine public confidence in the judiciary. But both a state Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court refused to intervene.

Last week, after closed hearings, the commission issued a public statement reprimanding Schmidt for giving preferential treatment in a case involving a friend's stepdaughter and making improper campaign contributions. The judge was cleared of charges that he had performed a legal favor for a prostitute in return for sex.

The 22-member Judicial Council, meeting last weekend in San Diego, approved a series of rules to take effect in January that spell out procedures for implementing the amendment.

The rules call for the commission to hold public hearings at the request of the judge unless it finds "good cause" for closed proceedings. In other cases, the commission may order public hearings without the judge's consent when the case involves moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption.

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