For Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, last week's favorable ruling by the state Supreme Court was little more than the predictable outcome of a nuisance lawsuit he always figured he'd win, another day in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
Speaking matter of factly after the court refused to reopen the case--in which Antonovich was accused of inappropriately phoning a judge on behalf of two campaign donors--the veteran politician dismissed the matter as "an example of the frivolous lawsuits that help clog up the courts."
Although Antonovich was cleared of financial liability in an earlier appeals court decision, his actions also were called "reprehensible" in a small portion of a long opinion. But the supervisor, whose district includes parts of the San Fernando Valley as well as the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys, brushed off that jab too.
In contrast, the case stirred years of soul-searching for Eric E. Younger, the now-retired judge whom Antonovich called in 1988. It marked the end of his long friendship with Antonovich and represented a rare crisis in an otherwise blue-chip career guided by the example of his late father, former state Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger.
In a short footnote to the same appeals court decision, Younger was admonished for failing to immediately end the telephone call from Antonovich. He later said the court's criticism unfairly subjected him "to a substantial and career-damaging injustice."
The footnote also criticizes Younger for waiting six weeks to remove himself from the case. After much thought, he wrote the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court asking to have the footnote erased--both times unsuccessfully.
Today, the 52-year-old Younger, who lives in Altadena, says he accepts the fact that the criticism will remain on the record. His main concern had been his reputation--"my only product, if you will"--and he said his new career as a private arbitrator and author has been going very well.
But the episode offers a glimpse at the ethical dilemma that judges face when someone unexpectedly tries to intervene in a pending case--especially a friend or acquaintance.
"Supervisors can talk about anything they want [with judges], but not cases pending before the court. That's a no-no, a judicial cardinal sin," said Gideon Kanner, an appellate law specialist and professor emeritus at Loyola Law School.
Judges often are caught off guard by acquaintances who approach them in social settings, start casual conversations and then bring up pending cases, said Santa Monica Superior Court Judge David Rothman, who writes about judicial ethics.
Particularly vulnerable are judges such as Younger, an active man from a prominent political family with many community ties, Rothman said, adding: "It comes unexpected, and sometimes you don't even recognize it."
That's exactly how Younger has described the November, 1988, phone call from Antonovich. The two grew up together in Los Feliz. Antonovich eulogized Younger's father after his 1989 death, and they had spoken countless times over the years about family, mutual friends and county business.
Before he knew it, Younger says, Antonovich brought up the case of Krikor Suri and his business partners in a downtown Los Angeles jewelry mart. The two were being sued by fellow investor Avedis Kasparian.
Younger says he abruptly changed the subject and ended the phone call as quickly and diplomatically as he could without hanging up "mid-sentence" on his old friend. He then began agonizing over how to handle the situation, knowing that he needed to remove himself from the case but loath to embarrass Antonovich, who he believed had just committed a "mildly dumb" mistake.
About six weeks later, after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays had passed, Younger disclosed the phone call to both sides of the case and removed himself as its judge. A big reason for the delay, he says, was that he wanted to consult his trusted father, who was on a cruise when the call occurred.
Younger had nothing more to do with the matter for nearly five years, until he was called to testify as a witness for Kasparian in 1993. In a related suit, Kasparian alleged that Antonovich had spoiled an out-of-court settlement that he had been negotiating because the phone call to Younger diminished his adversaries' incentive to work out a deal.
Kasparian had hoped to unload his share in the jewelry mart for $2 million but instead sold it to his adversaries for $800,000 after negotiations broke down, a profit reduction that he blamed on the supervisor's intervention.
Until then, Younger says, he continued to believe that the phone call had been an innocent lapse in Antonovich's judgment. But during the trial, he says, he learned to his chagrin that Suri and his partners had contributed $13,000 to Antonovich's 1988 reelection campaign just days before and after the call.
That discovery was "the single worst moment for me," Younger said. "I'd always said, 'Well, it's kind of a dumb trick, but he's not a lawyer.' . . . I thought it was mildly dumb. I think I used that phrase 100 times until I learned about the money, and that's when my tummy started to bother me."
Antonovich still insists that he made the call for Suri not because of money but because of his long-standing ties to his district's large Armenian community, and his genuine sympathy for a constituent he considered hard-working and honest.
The donations from Suri and his partners came from tickets bought to two political dinners attended by hundreds of people, "including judges," Antonovich said, and represented nothing unseemly or illegal.
"These people were old friends and supporters of mine for years in the community," he said.
Kasparian persuaded a Superior Court jury otherwise, winning a $1.2-million award against Antonovich. But Antonovich and Los Angeles County were able to overturn the jury's verdict on appeal, winning a Sept. 14 ruling that found no evidence that Antonovich's call had directly affected the buyout negotiations.
Yet the appeals court ruling was a tainted victory for Antonovich because of its sharp criticism of the phone call. The three appeals court justices--Joan Dempsey Klein, Richard Dennis Aldrich and H. Walter Croskey--said in their opinion that Antonovich's behavior was "unacceptable," particularly because of the campaign contributions.
Antonovich dismisses the criticism as a "political" insertion at the end of a long ruling that otherwise exonerates him. "In a 41-page opinion, they have two paragraphs" that are critical, he said.
Younger, however, painstakingly described his efforts to do the right thing in two letters to the Court of Appeal and state Supreme Court. The first letter offended Antonovich, who wrote Younger in an Oct. 12 letter of his own:
"To assert that I took money for a character reference is an outright lie!. . . . What a dumb, irresponsible statement to make--especially coming from one whose family was directly involved in my political activities!"
Younger responded the next day, writing:
"I have always viewed with sadness the events which were set inevitably in motion by your call. . . . I liked you as a kid, voted for you in every election you faced and appreciated your gracious words at my dad's funeral. I certainly would never have taken the fateful call, had it come from a public servant whose integrity I did not completely trust."
Younger's letter concluded: "You are right about my family's involvement in politics; sadly, I've seen things later in life which I didn't pick up at Mildred or Evelle Younger's knee."
The two have not spoken since the appeals court decision was released, although Antonovich said he still considers Younger a friend.