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Panel Admonishes Former L.A. Judge

Times Staff Writer

In a rare public admonishment, a state oversight panel has scolded a former Los Angeles County judge for making inappropriate comments and asking women in his courtroom out on dates.

Superior Court Judge John D. Harris once asked a rape victim -- whose trial he had presided over -- to have a private dinner with him, according to the Commission on Judicial Performance.On another occasion, Harris pulled lawyers aside to thank them for selecting an attractive female juror, the panel said.

During a prostitution case, the jurist disparaged the defendant by saying in open court: “She would look OK if she had her teeth straightened.”

Rather than appearing dignified and impartial, Harris showed “poor judgment” and a “troubling pattern of insensitivity to women,” the commission concluded in a discipline ruling -- announced on its website last week -- that summarized numerous complaints against the former jurist.

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The admonishment carries no fines or suspensions but taints Harris’ record as a judge, which could block future judicial appointments.

But it isn’t expected to affect Harris. The longtime jurist, who presided over cases in downtown Los Angeles, Van Nuys, South Gate and Huntington Park, quietly retired five months ago after turning 70 and has said he does not plan to return.

Some lawyers said Harris’ misbehavior had been known to court insiders for years, and questioned why it took the panel so long to act.

“This was a black eye for the bench. I don’t know why it took so long,” said Sean Erenstoft, an attorney who filed a complaint over Harris’ unwanted advances toward the rape victim in 2000. “He was relentless in trying to get a date with the ladies. Someone should have been yelling and screaming. I tried, but nothing happened.... It was put under the rug for four years.”

Victoria Henley, director and chief counsel for the commission, said delays sometimes occur for reasons beyond the panel’s control. She declined to comment on Harris’ case, but said that sometimes, if an allegation of judicial misconduct is also part of a pending appellate case, commissioners will wait until the case concludes. Harris’ conduct had been the subject of at least one appeal.

The judicial commission, whose members include judges, lawyers and private citizens, found that Harris had committed at least 10 instances of “prejudicial misconduct” or “improper action” involving various people -- mostly women -- from 2000 to 2003.

In 2002, he threw a case file at a female prosecutor, who had to pick up papers from the floor as a packed courtroom audience watched. He later made demeaning remarks about her.

“It was very embarrassing. I didn’t do anything to offend [Harris], yet he was very hostile toward me,” said the prosecutor, Deputy City Atty. Chadd Kim. “He’s a white old male, I’m a young female Asian. Maybe that made him uncomfortable.”

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Allan Parachini, spokesman for the county court system, declined to comment on Harris, citing a long-standing policy by judges to remain mum when a peer is disciplined by the state.

Harris’ attorney, Edward George Jr., did not return calls seeking comment.

Every year only a handful of the 1,600 trial or appellate judges in California’s state court system are publicly disciplined.

In 2003, the most recent year for which statistics were available, 1,011 complaints were filed against 759 judges. The commission issued private warning letters to 18 judges and publicly disciplined four. The public disciplines included removing two from the bench. Judges have been removed for such offenses as fixing traffic tickets.

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Censuring is considered more severe than admonishment, though neither involves fines or suspensions because the state constitution does not provide for such punishment.

In imposing the lightest public discipline on Harris, commissioners noted that numerous witnesses had testified to his “good nature” and his “long, distinguished career as a judge.”

Harris also told the commission he did not intend to work as a judge again.


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