Recall Looms for Judge in Custody Cases


No state uses the specter of a recall election more effectively or more frequently than California, where not even judges are immune.

And nowhere is that illustrated more dramatically than Orange County, where a jurist celebrated by her peers for being not only competent but also respected and fair is being assailed for her controversial ruling in the O.J. Simpson child custody case.

The threat has grown so serious for Orange County Superior Court Judge Nancy Wieben Stock, 45, that even her closest colleagues admit privately her chances for evading the recall appear to grow dimmer by the day.

"It's time to stop looking at judges as some untouchable god you can say nothing about," said Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles-based Women's Progress Alliance, which is spearheading the recall effort.

"The recall process is a way of bringing people back to the system," Bruce said. "We're going to use Nancy Wieben Stock as an example. I've heard her supporters say she's a courageous judge, but when do two dead children add up to courage?"

It's more than the Simpson case that some are holding against the judge.

There's also the matter of Storm Cameron Kyle, 9, and Tarah Leigh Kyle, 7, whose recent deaths are fueling Bruce's crusade. The Kyle children were the son and daughter of Marcia Amsden-Kyle, whose sad life has ended up as a strange footnote in the never-ending story of O.J. Simpson.

Last month, Amsden-Kyle murdered her two children and then killed herself, according to the Riverside Police Department, which ruled the case a murder-suicide. It was Judge Stock who in 1991 gave Amsden-Kyle shared custody of her two children.

Bruce and her supporters have attempted to draw a parallel between Amsden-Kyle and Simpson, saying that both were perpetrators of domestic violence and that Stock ignored evidence of such behavior in awarding both custody of their children.


But the weapon Bruce and her legion have chosen--the recall--is, in many respects, what elevates this effort to the level of political intrigue, especially in California, which leads the nation in attempting to recall governors, Supreme Court justices and state lawmakers.

If California is the king of recalls, then Orange County is its eager prince, having attempted recalls of more than 200 public officials since the early 1970s, with 24 having been ousted from office, which leads all other counties in the state by a wide margin.

Should Stock be recalled, however, she would be the first Orange County jurist driven from office via that method.

Spearheaded by then-Gov. Hiram Johnson, California initiated the recall procedure in 1911, despite complaints that recalls ought to be used only for politicians, not judges--a suggestion Johnson vehemently resisted.

"A small, determined band of people can take over the recall process and get rid of just about anyone they want to," said Charles Price, a political science professor at California State University at Chico and an expert on recalls. "The recall process has many advantages, but there are flaws as well. In some cases, serious flaws."

Stephen Densmore, the attorney for the Women's Progress Alliance, which describes itself as a women's and children's rights organization, said the recall tactic became imperative when Stock "kept out any evidence of the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson."

She then compounded the sin, in his words, by choosing to award custody to the former football great, whom Densmore characterized as a "killer and a vicious batterer" whose actions have inflicted permanent scars on his son Justin, 8, and daughter Sydney, 11.

Stock's rulings "reflect a general insensitivity to domestic violence and its effect on children," Densmore said.


Densmore also took issue with Stock's decision not to delay a ruling on custody until after the Simpson civil trial in Santa Monica, where a jury found him liable for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, Ronald Goldman, and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages.

Densmore said the Orange County judicial community has rallied around Stock "in a circle-the-wagons strategy. . . . They're taking the stance that recall is an inappropriate means of removing an elected official, because it 'politicizes' the judicial system."

But the law of recall makes no exceptions, argued Densmore, who contends that "there's no law in California or anywhere else that says--in the context of recalls--that a judge should be any more independent than any other elected official."

So the effort is proceeding. Bruce and Densmore say they intend to file a notice of recall by March 1, after which they would need five months to gather the requisite number of signatures--an estimated 138,000. Their goal is 200,000.


After the signatures are verified, the registrar of voters would call for a special election at an undetermined time in the future.

Orange County Superior Court Judge William F. McDonald, president of the California Judges' Assn., defended Stock as a judge of "impeccable" character, saying "it would be a tragedy" to banish her from office because one group disagrees with one decision.

"We don't conduct cases by hearing the evidence in the news media and then say, 'Let's conduct a poll,' " McDonald said. "We don't use the Roman gladiator method of thumbs-up or thumbs-down. We hear the facts and apply the law to the facts. And usually, half the people end up unhappy."

McDonald also took issue with Stock's dissenters, noting that Simpson was acquitted in a criminal court--a ruling Stock had to respect--and that the civil case that went against him may end up being appealed years into the future.

"How long was Judge Stock supposed to wait?" McDonald said.

McDonald also contends that, at the time of the Amsden-Kyle ruling in 1991, Stock made "the only decision she could have." He noted that the children's father, a long-haul truck driver, told the judge he had no objection to the children being with their mother during the times he was away--which were frequent.

Gary S. Gorczyca, who represented Jeffrey Kyle at the time of the 1991 ruling, recently issued a statement supporting Stock, saying "her good reputation has been earned by consistently well-reasoned decisions which are faithful to the law and reflect compassion for the individuals involved."

McDonald said "a better way for the recall forces to go about it" would be to change the law itself--which Assemblywoman Barbara Alby (R-Fair Oaks) is trying to do.

Alby's proposed bill would deny custody to any parent who had a prior criminal conviction for domestic violence or was found civilly liable for wrongful death with malice resulting in the death of the other parent.


Stock's colleagues are willing to concede that the talk-show emotion raging through the drama that is O.J. has the power of rendering one of their own a casualty.

Even so, "the judiciary cannot be responsive to political pressure," said Judi A. Curtin, president of the family law section of the Orange County Bar Assn. "For someone to suggest that a jurist be recalled just because a particular groups thinks one of their decisions is wrong, well . . . that in itself is wrong."

But it can happen under the law, and in Orange County, it has the prospect of succeeding.

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