Three Los Angeles federal judges are considering arguments that one of the state’s most successful civil-rights lawyers be barred from practicing in federal courts in seven Southern California counties because he accused one of their colleagues of being anti-Semitic.
In a highly unusual proceeding, the judges will hear testimony today against Venice attorney Stephen Yagman for allegedly violating local court rules with “derogatory” comments he made about U.S. District Judge William D. Keller.
In June, 1991, shortly after Keller attempted to discipline him for alleged misconduct in a civil trial, Yagman was quoted by the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, as saying Keller “has a penchant for sanctioning Jewish lawyers. . . . I find this to be evidence of anti-Semitism.”
In addition, that same month Yagman wrote a letter to Prentice Hall, a publisher of judicial profiles, branding Keller “ignorant, dishonest, ill-tempered . . . a bully, and probably one of the worst judges in the United States.” The letter was never published, but Keller, 58, obtained a copy of it and sent it to a special disciplinary committee of the federal court in September, 1991, urging the committee to act against Yagman.
Keller has not publicly commented on Yagman’s accusations. In the wake of the Daily Journal article, a lawyer for the Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to the paper defending the judge.
The disciplinary committee accuses Yagman of making the controversial statements in an attempt to get Keller, a conservative judge, to recuse himself from hearing cases Yagman filed on behalf of alleged victims of police brutality. Yagman’s practice consists almost exclusively of such cases, so if he were suspended or disbarred from practicing in federal court here, it could have a severe impact on him.
Yagman, 48, contends that he is being subjected to a vendetta stemming from his longstanding feud with Manuel L. Real, the presiding judge of the Central District of California, which is based in Los Angeles and spans seven counties from Riverside to San Luis Obispo.
Nearly a decade ago, Real imposed a $250,000 sanction on Yagman, which ultimately was reversed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. During the lengthy contretemps, Yagman charged in an interview that Real had “mental disorders.”
Real appointed the 12-member disciplinary committee that lodged the charges against Yagman last December. He has not publicly commented on this matter.
Yagman has stated that he is the only attorney who has been the subject of charges by the committee, having been previously sanctioned by the body in 1983. He also was suspended from practice for six months by the State Bar of California in 1989 after a series of disputes with former clients. He is currently under investigation by the State Bar, stemming from the same complaints involved in the federal hearing.
Yagman, who is being represented by former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, steadfastly maintains that he has done nothing wrong.
“I and every other American citizen have the absolute right under the 1st Amendment to criticize government officials without fear of vengeance or retribution for doing that,” he said.
But lawyers for the disciplinary committee contend that Yagman has violated court rules and that the federal court has the inherent power to discipline him for misconduct.
By publicly attacking and insulting certain judges “with the intention that they recuse themselves from his cases due to the appearance of a conflict of interest or bias . . . Yagman has sought to ‘shop’ among the judges of this district for those he thinks will rule on his cases most favorably,” in violation of local rules, contends a brief for the committee.
The brief, prepared by Los Angeles attorney Graham E. Berry, also asserts that contrary to Yagman’s assertions, the disciplinary hearing is not governed by 1st Amendment issues.
“As a matter of law, the court need not be concerned whether Yagman’s public attacks upon certain Central District judges have any basis in truth,” the brief says. “Rather, the court need only be concerned with the goal of those attacks--the forced disqualification of certain judges in favor of those whom Yagman prefers on his cases. Only by disciplining him appropriately will this court be able to deter such conduct in the future.”
Yagman said it was “preposterous” for someone to claim that he would make negative comments about a judge in an attempt to force that judge off one of his cases.
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, an expert on court procedures and legal ethics, said it is very difficult to get a federal judge recused from a case and virtually inconceivable that a judge would have to recuse himself because of a provocative act by an attorney in a case.
However, lawyers are periodically sanctioned for negative comments that they make about judges, Gillers said. And an accusation that a judge is anti-Semitic would be likely to draw closer scrutiny than other sorts of charges.
“I think you would have to show you had a good-faith basis for making the allegation,” Gillers said.
At the first hearing in the case last month, Yagman said he formed his opinion about Keller by talking to several attorneys and observing the judge in court. But he refused to divulge the names of those lawyers. “This is a democracy and I’m not going to destroy the lives and reputations of other attorneys who practice before this court to save myself, if that’s what it means,” Yagman said. About 50 local lawyers attended the hearing in a show of support for Yagman.
At times the proceeding lapsed into something resembling a Marx brothers movie.
One of the key witnesses for the disciplinary committee was Robert Steinberg, a Beverly Hills lawyer, who said Yagman told him two years ago that he had attacked Keller in an attempt to get him off his cases, a charge Yagman denied. Yagman then attempted to impeach Steinberg, who in 1985 pleaded guilty to contempt of court for refusing to answer questions after telling police that he had videotapes of sadomasochistic sex parties involving Reagan Administration officials and murdered model Vicki Morgan.