A lawyer for a Los Angeles-based state appeals court justice told a panel of judges Monday that sexual harassment charges against him stemmed from a “whisper campaign” in court hallways fueled in part by a female judge who enjoyed being at the center of attention.
During the first day of formal proceedings against 2nd District Court of Appeal Justice Jeffrey H. Johnson, his lawyer suggested Johnson was the victim of malicious gossip and that some of his accusers, including Justice Victoria Chaney, were not credible.
Chaney, who serves on the 2nd District Court with Johnson, has accused him of sexually harassing her for years, grabbing one of her breasts, patting her bottom and repeatedly asking her to have an affair with him. She and Johnson were appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Chaney is one of nearly 20 women who have told the state Commission on Judicial Performance that Johnson harassed them over the last two decades. Johnson has denied the most serious charges, but admitted that he did not have proper boundaries.
The proceedings before a panel of judges appointed by the California Supreme Court began at a state bar court in downtown Los Angeles, with opening arguments and testimony from women who reported lewd comments or conduct by Johnson and court janitors who said they saw him apparently inebriated at night.
The commission has scheduled four weeks for the hearing. Johnson, 58, faces potential removal from the bench.
“This is a career death penalty case,” Paul S. Meyer, Johnson’s lawyer, told the court.
Johnson, flanked by his lawyers at a table with his wife seated a few feet behind, followed the arguments and testimony closely and often took notes.
Meyer portrayed Johnson as an effusive, friendly man whose actions 20 years ago were being viewed through the lens of the #MeToo era.
“Today is very different” from a decade ago, Meyer said. “If you go to a social event today, you don’t hug.”
He told the court that the allegations against Johnson stemmed from a few women who spread “vile” rumors. Chaney, Meyer said, is known to engage in salacious gossip that puts “her at the center of attention” and considers herself “very attractive and appreciates the attention.”
Emma Bradford, a lawyer for the judicial watchdog agency, told the court that she would show Johnson has sexually harassed women throughout his career, preying on court staff, externs, research attorneys and private lawyers.
The state’s first witness, Roberta Burnette, a private lawyer, testified that she met Johnson at the Jonathan Club in 2015 at a dinner sponsored by the Assn. of Business Trial Lawyers.
While they were seated alone at a table toward the end of the night, “he said to me, you know you are very voluptuous,” she testified. She tried to brush off the remark and changed the subject.
As their conversation continued, he eventually asked her to perform one sexual act on him, then another, she testified.
She testified that she fled the table, found her then-boyfriend, now her husband, and told him, “Get me out of here right now.” She said she told him that night about Johnson’s remarks.
She did not report his behavior to the state Judicial Council or the Commission on Judicial Performance, she testified, because she feared Johnson might retaliate against her or her law firm if they had a case before him.
Her husband, Gregg Elliott, testified that Burnette told him of Johnson’s remarks that night.
Another witness, Price Kent, also a private lawyer, testified about her interactions with Johnson 10 years ago when she worked as an associate at a law firm shortly after graduating from law school.
She said Johnson told the firm he could direct clients its way, and the firm invited him to social events.
Johnson repeatedly invited her to visit his chambers, she testified, and once put his hand on her knee under a table and moved it upward during a firm dinner.
“His palm was on my leg and slid up,” she testified, saying it was “absolutely not” an accident. She testified that she believed Johnson was inebriated at the time, and she said she emailed her partners about the incident the following day.
The partners told her they would speak to Johnson about it, she said. Later they told her Johnson was very apologetic. She said the partners continued to invite Johnson to firm events.
Darnice Benton, a janitor for the Court of Appeal, testified she saw Johnson walking “topsy turvy” near the court late at night and assumed he was intoxicated.
Rodney Pettie, another custodian for the court, testified that he had noticed Johnson apparently intoxicated about four times at night and periodically found a couple of beer bottles in his chambers.
Johnson’s lawyer contends the justice suffers from diabetes, and when his sugar level drops, he exhibits symptoms that mirror those of intoxication.
The three-judge tribunal will make a report of findings of fact and law after the hearing ends, and the Commission on Judicial Performance will decide whether to discipline Johnson. Johnson can appeal the commission’s decision to the California Supreme Court.