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Retaliation for Grand Jury Reform Effort Is Alleged

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys challenging the ethnic makeup of the Los Angeles County Grand Jury charged that Superior Court judges retaliated against lawyers who tried to reform the system a decade ago.

“I believe that I should not be required to endure yet another round of judicial reprisals for doing my constitutional duty,” criminal defense attorney Charles L. Lindner said in court papers seeking to disqualify all Los Angeles Superior Court judges from hearing his current grand jury challenge.

Like the previous challenge, this one alleges that Latinos have been excluded from the grand jury, a powerful body that indicts criminal suspects and serves as a watchdog over local government.

Lindner last challenged the 1990 grand jury’s ethnicity--a battle he lost.

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He charges that even as the 1990 case was pending, he and other lawyers were threatened with an audit by three judges who questioned the hours spent on the challenge, and with criminal prosecution for fraud. The audit cleared him, he said.

A decade later, Lindner, an occasional legal commentator for The Times, is at the center of the latest round of grand jury challenges.

The court is finalizing a list of candidates for next year’s grand jury. As before, the 428 Superior Court judges each can nominate two panelists, and a committee of judges vets any volunteers from the community.

There are no Latinos on the 1999-2000 grand jury, and the judges didn’t nominate any, according to motions and other documents filed in the cases. The ethnic makeup of the current pool of prospective panelists is not yet public.

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On Wednesday, two Los Angeles Superior Court judges postponed separate hearings on grand jury challenges. Lindner and another criminal defense attorney, Victor Sherman, are attempting to pressure the state Judicial Council to appoint a neutral judge from outside the county.

At stake are perhaps hundreds of grand jury indictments. If he and Sherman prevail, Lindner said, those indictments would automatically become invalid under a legal theory known as collateral estoppel.

Other counties in California have responded to similar challenges by establishing two grand juries. One, still nominated by the judges, presides over civil matters. But members of the criminal grand jury are chosen at random from the general jury pool, which is more ethnically diverse.

To further understand the Los Angeles bench’s resistance to change requires at least three decades of institutional memory.

Oscar Acosta, a civil rights attorney known as “the Brown Buffalo,” challenged the 1968 and 1969 grand juries--forcing 33 Los Angeles Superior Court judges to testify about their nominations. It was a spectacle the judges are not eager to repeat.

Both Sherman and Lindner have indicated that they plan to call judges as witnesses and question them about their nominations. The attorneys already have convinced two Superior Court judges--Thomas L. Willhite Jr. and Curtis Rappe--to recuse themselves from the challenge as potential witnesses.

Lindner’s case is now before Superior Court Judge William F. Fahey, and Sherman’s case has been sent to Judge James M. Ideman, a retired federal jurist temporarily assigned to the Superior Court.

Fahey asked attorneys to return to court Friday; Ideman continued the case in his courtroom until April 25.

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Some of the battles of the past have been bitter, according to Lindner’s declaration.

In addition to the audits of his billing hours and expenses, he said, a court-appointed expert who conducted a study demonstrating that Latinos were underrepresented was never paid by the court for his work. The expert sued Lindner and his co-counsel.

Lindner’s motion names names, identifying the allegedly retaliatory judges as disgraced jurist George W. Trammell, later ousted from the bench for having sex with a defendant’s ex-wife; former presiding Judge Ricardo M. Torres, who was the prosecutor during a grand jury challenge in the late 1960s; and former supervising judge of the criminal courts Cecil Mills. All three have since retired from the bench and could not be reached for comment.

Ultimately, Lindner said, he and another lawyer who raised such challenges were removed from the court’s list of capital defense appointees.

“I strongly believe that my removal occurred because of my attempts to make the Superior Court’s jury pools reflect the population of the community it served,” Lindner concluded in a declaration supporting a motion to disqualify the Los Angeles bench from hearing his latest grand jury challenge.

“Any reasonable man” with similar experiences, Lindner said, “would be an extraordinary fool to trust any Los Angeles Superior Court judge to maintain neutrality in the light of such a history of interference and external pressures.”

Lindner’s client, Regina Vartanova, is one of 49 people charged in connection with an alleged auto insurance fraud ring. Sherman’s client, Jaime Alejandro Mares, is charged with two counts of murder in the November 1998 slayings of Officer Brian Brown and Gerardo Sernas, as well as three counts of attempted murder and one count each of evading an officer and auto theft. He could face the death penalty for special circumstance allegations of murder of an on-duty police officer and multiple murders.

Meanwhile, a scholarly study to be published in next month’s Yale Law Journal concludes that the Los Angeles courts have excluded minorities from the grand jury since at least the 1960s. The study seeks to reconcile judges’ protestations that they did not discriminate against Latinos with statistics that show they do.

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The discrimination may not be intentional, the study found, but the results are the same as if it were. The courts have been slow to recognize the discrimination because it is so deeply entrenched that it amounts to institutional bias, concludes Ian F. Haney Lopez, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

Lopez cited transcripts from Acosta’s 1969 grand jury challenge questioning judges about their nominations. One judge nominated eight fellow members of his tennis club. Others nominated people from their churches, neighbors or friends of their court clerks.

Asked if he knew any Latinos, the tennis-playing judge responded: “Well, the gentleman that is a gardener at my house is a Mexican American. I just signed his citizenship papers.”

Another judge also said the only Latinos he knew were courthouse workers and gardeners.

Times staff writer Sylvia Pagan Westphal contributed to this story.


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