Panel Admonishes Glendale Judge for Conflict of Interest
The California Commission on Judicial Performance publicly admonished a judge Monday who owned $45,000 worth of stock in the Walt Disney Co. for not disqualifying himself from four cases in which he ruled in Disney’s favor.
The commission also admonished Glendale Superior Court Judge Charles Stoll for using court stationery to write two letters to a collection agency on behalf of a family member.
Stoll conceded that he broke the state regulation regarding stock ownership but said he did not know he owned enough shares to fall under the requirement to disqualify himself.
“It never occurred to me that the thousand shares I had in an IRA account was enough to disqualify me,” he said. “I ‘fessed up to it when I learned about it.”
Under state law, a judge must disqualify himself from a case if he has a financial interest of more than 1% in a concerned company, or stock worth more than $1,500, said Victoria Henley, director and chief counsel for the commission.
Stoll also admitted to writing the letters in question, but said he was not attempting to use his influence as a judge and that he wrote “personal” on top of each missive.
The state commission ruled that Stoll had engaged in “improper conduct” in both cases.
“Stoll’s explanation that he had failed to familiarize himself with the provisions of the [law] . . . served to aggravate, rather than mitigate, his misconduct in failing to disqualify,” the commission said in its ruling.
The admonishment came about as a result of a complaint by a former Disney employee who had attempted to sue the company for allegedly eliminating her job after a pregnancy leave. The employee, Aprile Boettcher, did a routine check of Stoll and discovered he owned stock in Disney, said her attorney, Robert Racine.
Judges are rarely admonished publicly. The commission issued just six such admonishments last year.
Commission counsel Henley said that a public admonishment falls about midway in the range of tools the agency uses to criticize judges. The disciplinary measures increase in severity from a letter of warning to private admonishment, public admonishment, censure and removal.
Superior Court Judge James Otero, supervising judge for the North Central Judicial District, where Stoll works, said he felt Stoll had committed “a technical violation.”
But Art Margolis, who represents defense attorneys accused of ethical violations and serves as a consultant to lawyers on ethical matters, said Stoll’s violations were more serious.
“He had a conflict of interest,” Margolis said. “He had litigants who were appearing before him who had every right to expect they would be given an impartial hearing by someone who did not have a financial interest in either party.”