In a rare rebuff of a judicial watchdog panel, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday that a Santa Barbara judge does not deserve to be publicly censured for being rude to litigants, making an anti-Semitic remark and failing to cooperate initially in a police investigation.
In a unanimous ruling, the court said Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Bruce W. Dodds had engaged in misconduct but the punishment recommended by the Commission on Judicial Performance was too severe. The commission had recommended that Dodds be publicly censured, the toughest discipline next to removal from the bench.
The court's decision came the same day it announced a new mandatory code of ethics for judges.
"I think it is ironic, to say the least, if they have now imposed more stringent ethical requirements on judges after reversing the Dodds case on such tenuous grounds," said Deputy Atty. Gen. David F. Glassman, who prosecuted Dodds.
But James E. Friedhofer, the San Diego lawyer who represented Dodds, said the facts of the case did not warrant the severe discipline.
"I believe the judges of this state should really take comfort in the fact that the system does seem to work," Friedhofer said. "We are pleased that the Supreme Court did do a careful job . . . in looking at both the facts and the law."
The case against Dodds included allegations that he impeded the law enforcement investigation of another Santa Barbara Superior Court judge, James Slater, who deflated the tire of a van parked in his courthouse parking spot in April 1993. The van belonged to a disabled person.
Dodds, 57, witnessed the vandalism, did not try to dissuade Slater from committing it, and for four weeks did nothing to bring the incident to the attention of appropriate authorities--even after learning that Slater had denied deflating the tire, the court said.
Dodds initially declined to discuss the incident with a detective and suggested to his court staff members that they decline to talk to the detective also, the court said. The judge relented only after Slater confessed. Slater was later publicly reproved by the watchdog commission.
The court found "no credibility" in Dodds' assertion that he did not come forward because he wanted to protect the reputation of the judiciary. "The evidence establishes that the petitioner was more concerned about protecting the reputation of his colleague than that of the judiciary," the court said.
But the court disagreed with the judicial watchdog commission that Dodds was acting in his judicial capacity when he interfered with the investigation.
In another incident, Dodds acted improperly in conducting a settlement conference in a case involving alleged sexual misconduct by a physician. He repeatedly interrupted the woman who had brought the case and drove her to tears, the court said.
"When a judge, clothed with the prestige and authority of his judicial office, repeatedly interrupts a litigant and yells angrily and without adequate provocation, the judge exceeds his proper role and casts disrepute on the judicial office," the court said.
The court also noted that Dodds had made a joke about chiropractors providing excessive treatment after making a ruling in a case involving a chiropractor. The joke was made outside the courtroom but in front of the mother of one of the litigants.
While chastising Dodds for "interfering in a law enforcement investigation, rudeness and the appearance of bias," it said that public censures generally involve more serious misconduct.
Calling Dodds a "talented" judge, a majority of the court also determined that Dodds could not be punished for an offensive remark he made in 1987 because of a statute of limitations. After a hearing with two Jewish lawyers, Dodds told visitors in his chambers that he "almost became anti-Semitic this morning because there were two lawyers out there just whining and whining."