Debugged : Listening Devices in New Offices Are Disabled Before Justices Move In


The discovery of electronic devices that could have enabled security officers to hear conversations in private judicial chambers set off a flurry of concern and controversy Friday at the state Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.

The devices were installed as part of an elaborate security system in the new offices of the high court and the appellate court that serves the San Francisco region.

A court spokeswoman said that the installation was a “contractor’s error” made during construction of the facilities and that the devices were deactivated before the judges moved in last month. She said there was no indication that security officers had ever used them to tune in on the judges’ chambers, where jurists often discuss pending decisions and other confidential matters with their staffs.


Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas declined to discuss the matter with reporters, saying that he regarded it as “a tempest in a teapot.”

Nonetheless, revelations about the devices caused considerable stir within the seven-member high court and the 19-member appellate court. Some jurists said they had not learned of the devices until Friday and expected an explanation. Others said they had--or would--seek removal of the devices from their offices.

“I would expect at our next court conference we would ask for an explanation from our security people,” said Justice Stanley Mosk, the senior member of the Supreme Court. “I don’t see any purpose for the device.”

Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian, looking up from his desk to the tiny device in the ceiling that had gone unnoticed before, said: “If I thought anyone could listen in at his own whim, I would be leaving in a minute to go to the local emporium to get a screwdriver and some snippers. . . . I would be absolutely stunned if I thought anyone could listen in on my chambers without my knowledge.”

Appellate Justice J. Anthony Kline said he planned to have the device in his office removed. “I am a little astonished that we were not advised of this earlier. When I saw this thing, I thought it was just a thermostat. This is not only an intrusion on my privacy, but the privacy of the court.”

Appellate Justice Harry W. Low said that although he had been told the devices were not operating, he is still uneasy about their presence. “It’s still a little scary--a bit too much like Big Brother for me,” he said.

The first word of the devices emerged in an article in the San Jose Mercury News, which said Appellate Justice Jerome A. Smith had ordered the device in his chambers dismantled after he became concerned about its potential for abuse.

“I had one of the minions from security come in and get up on a ladder and cut the wires while I watched,” Smith was quoted as saying. Smith could not be reached for further comment Friday.

It was not clear how the listening system was to be activated to enable security personnel to listen in.

Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Panelli said he had been told that the device was intended only to enhance security and could not be used to hear conversations unless a justice first activated it with an alarm. Kline, however, said he had not been told the system required activation by a judge and, if so, how to do it. Court spokeswoman Lynn Holton said it could not be immediately learned how the system was to be activated.