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California

Judge faces tribunal on sexual misconduct charges

Justice Jeffrey Johnson of the California 2nd District Court of Appeal
Justice Jeffrey Johnson of the California 2nd District Court of Appeal.
(Judicial Branch of California)

A Los Angeles-based court of appeal justice will face a legal tribunal Monday on charges that he sexually harassed another justice, court staff and state security officers and appeared in public intoxicated.

Jeffrey Johnson, 58, appointed to the appeals court by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has denied the most serious charges brought by at least 17 women, some of whom said he touched them without their consent. His lawyers said he has taken and passed a polygraph test.

The judicial discipline case is highly unusual for a judge of Johnson’s position. The Commission on Judicial Performance, the independent state agency that will hear the charges against Johnson, has brought formal proceedings against only two other appellate justices since 1960.

If the charges are found to be true, Johnson could face removal from the bench. Two lawsuits have already been filed stemming from the sexual harassment allegations.

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Johnson sued the 2nd District Court of Appeal, where he serves, and Presiding Administrative Justice Elwood Lui. The suit says that Lui revealed a sexual harassment complaint by a California Highway Patrol officer against Johnson in an email sent to more than 10,000 court personnel.

Johnson contends that Lui, who was investigating the allegation, violated his privacy rights and that the mass email encouraged many of the women now alleging sexual harassment to view past interactions with him in a negative light. The suit seeks $10 million in compensation.

The CHP officer whose complaint Lui was reviewing also has sued Johnson and the CHP for sexual harassment.

Some of the most serious allegations against Johnson have been made by Justice Victoria Chaney, also a Schwarzenegger appointee who sits on the same court with Johnson. She has alleged that he sexually harassed her from 2009 to 2018.

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On one occasion in 2010, Chaney said she ran into Johnson in a court hallway and told him she had just come from a difficult hearing.

Chaney, who agreed to have her identity made public, said Johnson squeezed one of her breasts during the encounter.

She also said Johnson repeatedly asked her to have an affair, hugged her and touched her bottom and breasts when they met and made inappropriate comments.

Johnson denied making the comment about her breasts and said he never intentionally or inappropriately touched her.

Actually, he said, Chaney continually displayed “a warm and playful” attitude toward him over the years, praised him in a 2014 letter to the governor’s office, described him as her “conjoined twin” and failed ever to object to his behavior.

The CHP officer who sued Johnson said he propositioned her for sex when she was required to drive him, a charge Johnson denied. Another CHP officer said he repeatedly tried to get her into his house when no one was at home.

Other women — lawyers and court staff — said Johnson made inappropriate comments about their appearances, telling some they were beautiful, voluptuous, had a great figure or good legs.

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A lawyer said Johnson put his hand on her knee at a dinner and slid it up to her thigh. Another lawyer said he gave her an unwelcome and extended kiss on the lips. A third lawyer said he sent her sexually suggestive texts after meeting her at a private party.

The charges date back to 2004, when Johnson was a federal magistrate. A court clerk said Johnson asked her back then if she had a breast augmentation and wanted to know if he could touch her breasts.

In 2006, his then law clerk said he told her: “You’re so beautiful. You’re so smart. You’re into football. If only I’d met you in college.”

Johnson’s lawyers acknowledged in their responses to the charges that Johnson uttered some of the comments alleged but said he was unaware that they made others uncomfortable.

“Justice Johnson recognizes that he had not maintained appropriate boundaries at times between the professional and personal, and admits that blurring boundaries is not acceptable professional behavior,” Johnson’s lawyers wrote.

The lawyers also noted that none of the allegations involved a judicial act or a case before the court.

“All allegations relate to private, non-public social comments and gestures, sporadically occurring over a period of years,” his lawyers said.

The commission’s charges cite several occasions in which Johnson appeared intoxicated.

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In one incident in 2015, Johnson was seen in the Ronald Reagan State Building at 1 a.m. with two young women he had brought into the building after hours, according to the charges. He and the women appeared intoxicated. One of the women climbed onto a stone statue of a lion in the lobby and fell off, the charges said.

In response to the allegations of excessive drinking, Johnson’s lawyers said that he suffers from “insulin-dependent type 2” diabetes and that a drop in his blood sugar can impair his speech and walking, could be misinterpreted as intoxication.

The only two other formal cases brought by the Commission on Judicial Performance against appellate judges involved San Francisco-based Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline and the late California Supreme Court Justice Marshall F. McComb.

Kline was accused of failing to follow a precedent in a dissent. The case against him was eventually dismissed.

McComb was forced to retire in 1977 at the age of 82 after he was found to have “senile dementia.”

The Commission on Judicial Performance expects Johnson’s hearing to last four weeks. A panel of judges appointed by the California Supreme Court will then make findings of law and fact.

The commission will eventually decide whether discipline is warranted. Johnson can appeal the commission’s decision to the California Supreme Court.


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