Controversial Custody Cases Make Judge a Recall Target

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In no state is the specter of a recall election used more effectively or more frequently than in California, where not even judges are immune.

And nowhere is that illustrated more dramatically than in 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 concede privately that her chances for evading a 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 leading 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 is 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.

Last month, Amsden-Kyle killed her two children and then killed herself, according to the Riverside Police Department, which ruled the deaths murder-suicide. It was Judge Wieben Stock who in 1991 had given 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 Wieben Stock ignored evidence of such behavior in awarding both custody of their children.

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 legislators.

If California is the home of the recall, then its heartland is Orange County, where attempts have been made to recall more than 200 public officials since the early 1970s. Of those, 24 were ousted from office, which leads all other counties in the state by a wide margin.

If Wieben Stock is recalled, however, she would be the first Orange County judge driven from office via that method.

Led by 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 Cal State 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 in the Simpson case when Wieben 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 star, 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.

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

Densmore also took issue with Wieben 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 slayings of his ex-wife and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages.

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

But the law of recall makes no exceptions, said 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 have five months to gather the requisite number of signatures--an estimated 138,000. Their goal is 200,000.

If sufficient signatures are verified, the registrar of voters would call for a special election at an undetermined time.

Orange County Superior Court Judge William McDonald, president of the California Judges' Assn., defended Wieben 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 Wieben Stock's detractors, noting that Simpson was acquitted in a criminal court--a ruling Wieben 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 [Wieben Stock] supposed to wait?" McDonald said.

McDonald also contends that, at the time of the Amsden-Kyle ruling in 1991, Wieben Stock made "the only decision she could have." He noted that the children's father, a long-distance 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 Wieben 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--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 conviction for domestic violence or was found liable in civil court for wrongful death with malice resulting in the death of the other parent.

Wieben Stock's colleagues are willing to concede that the talk-show emotions raging through Simpson drama have 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."

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