Oversight panel disciplines judges in Lindsay Lohan case

Judge Marsha Revel was replaced in the Lindsay Lohan case after a prosecutor objected to meetings between Revel and a defense attorney.
(Jae C. Hong, Associated Press)

In the long-running saga of Lindsay Lohan’s legal troubles, every single misstep — each dirty drug test, every missed court appearance, even a profane message etched on her fingernail — was publicized, scrutinized and dissected in tabloids the world over.

But there were two allegations of misconduct that came and went quietly, out of public view. They weren’t transgressions by the former teen star growing up in the limelight. They were by two veteran judges presiding over her case.

L. A. County Superior Court Judges Marsha Revel and Elden Fox at the Beverly Hills courthouse were reproached by the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance for their handling of Lohan’s DUI case, according to documents obtained by The Times.

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The commission acted on accusations that Revel improperly met alone with an attorney who wanted to take over Lohan’s defense, and that Fox erred in denying the actress bail on a relatively minor charge and refusing to hear her attorney’s arguments. Both incidents occurred during a period of intense media attention in 2010 culminating in the star’s two-week term behind bars.

One judicial expert compared the commission’s action to a “wrist-slap” but said the judges’ conduct involved “fairly basic” legal mistakes.

The complaint against the two judges offers a rare peek behind the curtains at the pressures judges feel while dealing with the worldwide attention and scrutiny that come with such cases.

The commission’s involvement in Lohan’s case was spurred, at least in part, by a complaint filed in January 2011 by former Los Angeles County court spokesman Allan Parachini soon after he was fired for allegedly leaking information to the media. Parachini denied the leak and accused the court of discriminating against him because he suffers from severe depression.

In his letter to the commission, Parachini said he witnessed impropriety by Revel and Fox that he said was “due, in part, to the reality that many judges get caught up in celebrity litigation and part company with their experience and common sense.” The commission responded in a letter dated Dec. 19 that the agency had “taken an appropriate corrective action as to each judge named” in Parachini’s complaint.

The commission, which investigates claims of judicial misconduct, issues discipline only in rare cases. Of 1,138 complaints it received in 2011, 42 resulted in discipline. All but six judges were disciplined in private.

The agency’s annual report includes summaries of private discipline cases without naming the judges or parties involved. Two case descriptions included in the 2011 report closely mirrored Revel and Fox’s handling of Lohan’s case, suggesting the judges received “advisory letters,” the lowest level of discipline.

Revel did not respond to requests for comment. Fox declined to comment, saying he would not confirm that he had been disciplined, but added: “You can read about it in the commission’s report.”

The hoopla in 2010 surrounding Lohan’s criminal case began when the then-23-year-old actress, on probation for drunk driving, failed to show up for a May progress report hearing in Revel’s courtroom because, according to her attorney, she had lost her passport while at the Cannes Film Festival. Over the next few months, Lohan was hauled before Revel repeatedly for failing to attend court-mandated programs and when her alcohol-monitoring device went off.

In mid-July of that year, Revel sentenced Lohan to 90 days in jail, heightening media interest. Soon after, a reporter saw well-known defense attorney Robert Shapiro walk into Revel’s chambers, leading to calls to the court’s public information office, according to Parachini’s complaint. Shapiro was reportedly seeking to represent Lohan and subsequently filed a notice with the court saying he was now her attorney. In the end, Shapiro never became Lohan’s attorney.

Even so, the meeting raised eyebrows because it can be improper for judges to meet with one side involved in a court case without the other side also present — known as “ex parte communications.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Danette Meyers, the prosecutor handling Lohan’s case, complained to the judge about being left out of the meeting, and about other contacts made by Revel relating to the case, including with a drug treatment center, according to reports. In August, Revel recused herself from the case before prosecutors could file papers seeking her removal.

In the summary published in its annual report, the commission said it had issued an advisory letter to a judge who had “engaged in multiple ex parte communications with attorneys and others while presiding over a criminal case, which ultimately necessitated the judge’s recusal from the case.”

The case was transferred to Fox after Revel’s recusal. In September, Lohan appeared before Fox on suspicion of violating her probation after failing a drug test.

In a move that surprised legal experts at the time, Fox denied the actress bail and ordered her jailed until the next court hearing — highly unusual for a misdemeanor probation violation. Shawn Chapman Holley, Lohan’s attorney, appealed Fox’s ruling.

Parachini wrote in his complaint that he received a barrage of questions from the media about Fox’s decision to deny bail. In discussions among the court’s leadership, Parachini wrote, it became “clear that Judge Fox’s ruling had damaged the court’s credibility.” Judge Patricia Schnegg, supervising judge of the criminal courts, told Parachini she had “received numerous calls from other judicial officers concerned that Judge Fox had seriously overstepped his authority,” according to Parachini’s complaint.

Schnegg ultimately overruled Fox the same day, setting Lohan’s bail at $300,000.

In its annual report, the commission wrote that it had sent an advisory letter to a judge on a misdemeanor probation violation who had “refused the defendant’s attorney’s request to be heard on the issue of bail, denied the defendant bail and remanded the defendant in to custody.”

Deborah Rhode, an expert in legal ethics and a professor at Stanford Law School, said the missteps cited in Parachini’s complaint were basic errors that can affect whether a defendant feels treated fairly by the court system. Rhode said she was surprised at the errors because judges on celebrity cases are usually aware they are under intense scrutiny.

“It doesn’t seem like the litigant was unduly harmed, but it certainly makes the court look bad and puts its public credibility at risk,” she said of Lohan’s case.

Both judges were familiar with handling celebrity cases and dealing with the heavy tabloid attention they attract. Revel had previously overseen the criminal cases of Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s Flesh-N-Bone, and Fox was the judge in actress Winona Ryder’s 2002 shoplifting trial.