As the legal struggle over Police Chief Daryl F. Gates' status spills into higher courts, Mayor Tom Bradley's top strategist expressed optimism Wednesday about overturning a controversial Superior Court ruling supporting the chief's reinstatement, noting that the judge involved has come under fire before from appellate courts.
Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani said the mayor, who has called for Gates' resignation, is confident that Judge Ronald Sohigian's ruling will be reversed and that the Bradley-appointed Police Commission will be given clear authority over the chief and his department.
Fabiani cited two state Court of Appeal decisions earlier this year in which Sohigian was sharply criticized for an "egregious" abuse of discretion and making findings before hearing an attorney's arguments.
"(The) cases show he is no stranger to having his decisions reversed," Fabiani said. "The unusually harsh language (of the reversals) indicates that higher courts had serious questions in the past about his legal reasoning and his open-mindedness."
The Superior Court's presiding judge, Ricardo A. Torres, said the appellate court "castigated" Sohigian in the reversals, but said that is irrelevant to the Gates case and would not be considered in an appeal.
"If they are attacking the judge, I don't really think too much about (the strength of their case)," said Torres, who added that he has "all the confidence in the world" in Sohigian.
Sohigian declined to be interviewed about the reversals or his ruling in the Gates case. The 49-page decision issued Monday upheld the City Council's settlement of a lawsuit with Gates, which overrode a decision by the Police Commission to temporarily remove the chief pending an investigation of the department in the wake of the Rodney G. King beating.
Torres and several attorneys noted Wednesday that Sohigian, appointed to the bench in 1988 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, sits in an extremely demanding courtroom where emergency cases are heard. "Any judge sitting in (that court) is not a stranger to being reversed," said Sheldon Sloan, chairman of the Judicial Evaluation Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. "They call that (court) The Pit" because of the heavy workload and demand for quick rulings in high-profile cases. "Getting reversed a couple of times doesn't make me think he's a lousy judge."
His ruling in the case has become a central point of contention in the King controversy, with Bradley and other critics saying he has gutted the city's commission form of government.
Also, City Atty. James K. Hahn said, Sohigian's criticism of the Police Commission's handling of the Gates case could lead to disqualification of the panel from further actions to discipline or remove the chief.
Fabiani, seeking to soften the impact of a setback for the Bradley forces, said two recent appellate court reversals show that this "is not the first time he apparently used language and issued opinions that were inappropriate."
"We're trying to tell people this isn't over," he said. "It's dangerous for people to feel they have no recourse (because of Sohigian's ruling.) The Police Commission is (appealing) it, and there is a substantial chance of success."
The reversals, in February and March of this year, were both by the state 2nd District Court of Appeal, and involved sanctions that Sohigian had placed on lawyers who appeared before him.
In the first case, Sohigian imposed a $650 penalty on a lawyer who had filed a brief that was allegedly too long, and further instructed the lawyer to show the sanction to any other judges who heard the case. The lawyer tried to explain he had a previous judge's permission to file the brief. The appellate court ruled that there was "no rational legal analysis" to justify the sanction and that Sohigian had "made up his mind before he heard (the lawyer's) evidence." The appeals court also found "wholly inappropriate and offensive" Sohigian's order that other judges be shown his sanction order.
In the second case, Sohigian denied a motion to quash a summons and imposed $2,200 in sanctions on an attorney. The appellate court ruled that "this was not a close case" and that Sohigian should have granted the motion. The sanctions imposed were a "egregious abuse of discretion," the appeals court found.
Richard Davidoff, past president of the bar association's civil litigation section, said that while the judge's past reversals may be of interest in the public debate surrounding the Sohigian decision, they may not be meaningful. Any appeal in such a closely watched case is going to be "judged on its own merits without regard to who was the particular judge who rendered the decision or other cases involving unrelated areas of the law," he said.
A third lawyer closely involved in judicial evaluations noted that, while the language overruling Sohigian was strong, it basically involved how he ran his courtroom. And one expert on the state appellate court system, who asked not to be identified, speculated that a public attack on the judge could backfire in the long run for the Bradley camp. "Traditionally, it's dangerous. . . . Judges tend to stick together," the source said.
Sohigian, a Harvard Law School graduate, has a reputation for demanding respect, being prepared and writing lengthy decisions. His overall record of reversals on appeal could not be immediately determined.