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Investigations of alleged misconduct by California judges fall short, audit finds

Investigations of alleged misconduct by California judges fall short, audit finds
California State Auditor Elaine M. Howle, shown in 2017, released an audit Thursday showing that the state judicial watchdog agency failed to thoroughly investigate alleged wrongdoing by some judges. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A five-year audit of California’s judicial watchdog agency found it failed to thoroughly probe allegations of misconduct and ignored patterns of wrongdoing by some judges.

The report by California State Auditor Elaine M. Howle, released Thursday, determined that the Commission on Judicial Performance failed to take all reasonable steps to probe allegations of judicial misconduct in about a third of the cases the auditor reviewed.

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The watchdog board, created in 1960, disciplines errant judges in a variety of ways, from sending private advisory letters for relatively minor misconduct to removing jurists from the bench.

The commission is made up of judges, lawyers and members of the public appointed by the governor, the Legislature and the California Supreme Court.

The audit said the commission’s probes were not thorough and cited cases in which investigators failed to seek recordings and transcripts that could have determined whether complaints were valid.

Flaws in the agency’s investigative process “could allow judicial misconduct to go undetected and uncorrected,” Howle reported.

The alleged misconduct reviewed by the auditor included threats by a judge to assault litigants, inappropriate comments made by judges, and jurists having improper relationships with subordinates.

To address the problems, the auditor recommended that the commission be overhauled and given a one-time payment of $419,000 to implement the audit’s recommendations.

The report said the commission has failed to detect chronic misbehavior by some judges despite repeated complaints of similar wrongdoings.

In one case, the commission received 12 complaints about a judge in nearly 10 years, but failed to probe whether there was a pattern, the audit said.

In the future, the auditor said, investigators should review all prior complaints about a judge to determine whether they were similar.

During the five years examined by the audit, from 2013 through 2018, the commission closed an average of 75% of the complaints it investigated without imposing discipline, the audit said.

The commission “missed opportunities to fully investigate allegations of misconduct, has a structure and processes for discipline that do not align with best practices ... and has failed to ensure it is sufficiently transparent and accessible to the public,” the audit said.

The auditor also said the commission should accept complaints against judges online, not just in letters, and hold meetings open to the public.

Howle called on the Legislature to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the California ballot to require the commission to hear cases and authorize it to force judges to take corrective measures.

The proposed ballot measure suggested by the auditor would establish a bicameral structure for the commission with both an investigative and a disciplinary body. The majority of those in both bodies would be members of the public.

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In its response to the auditor, the commission noted in a letter that it fully cooperated with the audit. The commission also pointed out that the auditor detected “no problem” with the amount of discipline issued compared to that of judicial watchdog agencies in other states or the quality of the staff.

The commission said it would implement the auditor’s recommendations on investigative tactics, but opposed the auditor’s call for a restructuring.

The auditor, responding to those comments, said it was difficult to compare the commission’s disciplinary actions to those of other states and therefore the audit did “not opine” on a comparison.

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