This CJA resignation isn’t from Los Angeles….

Posted on June 18, 2011

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Subject: My Letter of Resignation from CJA

Dear Mr. Bissey:

I write to explain to you why I am resigning from the California Judges Association after having been a member for over 12 years, and after having served for most of those 12 years on the Criminal Law and Procedure Committee, both as a member and as chairperson.  I have chosen to send this message because you deserve an explanation why judges are leaving the association you have faithfully served for so many years.  Notwithstanding my decision and the views I express here in support of it, you should be aware that I have the greatest respect for you and your staff, in particular Legislative Counsel, Jordan Posamentier, and Membership and Administrative Coordinator, Michael Reilly.

When I first became a director of the Alliance of California Judges early last year, I believed that our two associations could complement one another in representing the interests of the state’s judges.  I believe the vast majority of Alliance members felt the same way.  I now see that is impossible.  CJA is largely populated by members interested only in attending occasional meetings and educational conferences, while their leadership acts as apologists for the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Having watched this development over the years, I frankly find it rather embarrassing.  The leadership of CJA has fallen so completely out of touch with the membership that CJA board members take action on behalf of the association without any apparent concern for the opinions of their constituency.  This trend has now become so pronounced that there is little reason to believe the association can ever again represent the views of the state’s judiciary.

While one may trace the beginnings of this trend back to the implementation of state trial court funding, the unchecked growth of the AOC to the detriment of trial court independence, and the virtual abdication of CJA’s role as an independent authority on judicial ethics, recent events have brought this fundamental defect further into focus.  The dysfunction of the association is now so glaring it can no longer be ignored.

A few examples will illustrate this point.  First, Judge Davis went — perhaps on his own initiative or perhaps at the behest of other branch leaders — to Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, identified himself as the President of CJA, and urged Mr. Calderon not to proceed with AB 1208, the Trial Court Rights Act of 2011.  Judge Davis first failed to respond to press inquiries about the visit, then claimed he was speaking on his own behalf and not as CJA President, and then at the CJA Mid-year Conference he blithely stated, “Some of us will take witnesses with us in the future when we meet with legislators.”  Does anyone really believe that Judge Davis went to the Assembly Majority Leader to discuss AB 1208 — the most important piece of legislation to affect the governance of the judiciary in years — without identifying himself as CJA President?  Is there a reason Judge Davis could not simply admit his error in judgment in advocating against legislation without direction from CJA members and the board?

Then there is the matter of the CJA survey on AB 1208.  This was truly a disgrace, a view I shared with you in the attached email at the time the survey was released.  The CJA board created a subcommittee to draft the survey, that group drafted a neutral survey designed to obtain an honest view of the membership about AB 1208 and various governance issues, and then by an email or telephonic vote of the executive committee of the board, the question that clearly sought agreement with the proposition that “judicial branch governance should remain within the judicial branch itself, and not become a function of external political processes” was added.  How can anyone look at that behavior and not be offended by the efforts of these CJA “leaders” to slant the survey to ensure the results of the survey matched their own personal views about governance of the judiciary and AB 1208?

Several of those leaders demonstrated their desire to slant the CJA survey results toward their own personal views even after the survey results were tabulated.  The worst example of this conduct was CJA board member Judge James Herman’s attempt to pit the judges of Los Angeles against the rest of the state’s judiciary by sending a letter to the Chief Justice on false CJA letterhead.  Regarding that outrageous conduct, these statements were attributed to you last month in a Courthouse News article:

“Judge Herman was out of line sending his own letter to the chief on faux CJA letterhead,” said Bissey. “He used art from our website –not the official CJA logo or masthead, apparently right clicked to save the art and pasted into his own message.”  “The positioning of Los Angeles versus the rest of the State (real or not) is not helpful from a CJA perspective and as much as it may seem like an ultimatum, CJA would be radically different should we face the mass exodus of 500 members from Los Angeles for membership in yet another potential rival Judges association,” Bissey noted.  He added that one member of the board “going rogue” is not helpful to the association as a whole nor within its rules. “This was unacceptable,” wrote Bissey, “and something needs to be done to show the rest of the board that we cannot have 25 individual spokespeople as the voice of the judiciary.”

I could not agree more.  Unfortunately, Judge Davis chose to ignore your sentiments and give Judge Herman an unconditional pardon for his inappropriate behavior.  He did all but publicly apologize to Judge Herman for the “misunderstanding” that flowed from his divisive attempt to speak for the association on false letterhead that he created without authorization.  In his desperate attempt to “save” his friend from further criticism and “rescue” the Chief Justice from further embarrassment over the actions of the judge she had only recently appointed to chair the Judicial Council committee overseeing CCMS, Judge Davis disrespected you and the membership of the association by again putting his personal goals first.

For years now, those of us who took the bench after the transition to JRS-II have been told that one of the most important goals of CJA has been JRS-II reform; that the goal is to obtain legislative assistance that might permit judges to retire with a defined pension benefit before age 65.  Acknowledging that the current state of the economy is not conducive to enhancing retirement benefits, CJA members understand that a fix of this kind will probably have to come as part of a larger bill that affects public employee benefits generally, but none of us expects that CJA has thrown in the towel on this issue.  But in an email dated June 8, describing to CJA members in his district his legislative outreach efforts on behalf of CJA, Judge Herman wrote, “The education of the legislators on our pension issues was critically important and our local legislators were appreciative of the information and supportive, recognizing our pensions do not need reform.”  While that position may make Judge Herman popular with his local legislators, it leaves this CJA member further convinced that CJA’s leaders are out of touch with the concerns of the membership.

Finally, CJA’s committee structure appears unsuited to the task of moving quickly to speak out on important matters affecting the judiciary.  Apparently the CJA Ethics Committee was of the view that the “Interim Amendments” to the Rules governing the Commission on Judicial Performance — which would have greatly handicapped judges and exposed them to enhanced discipline in the event they offered new information after the initial statement of intended discipline by the CJP — did not merit opposition by CJA because the amendments implicated “procedural rather than ethical issues.”  It would appear that CJA only took a position after its leaders learned of the strong opposition to the amendments expressed by the Alliance of California Judges and several Superior Courts.  CJA should lead on an issue of this importance; it cannot be the “Voice of the Judiciary” if it only weighs in after others have forced its hand.

For the first five years I was a judge, I needed the disability coverage provided through CJA, but that need has long since passed.  Until I found a much better rate elsewhere and replaced it, I thought I needed CJA for an affordable group rate life insurance policy.  My insurance coverage that provides legal representation in matters before the Commission on Judicial Performance comes from the AOC, not CJA.  So I sit looking at my CJA dues invoice and I ask myself, “Why should I continue to put my hard-earned money into an association whose leadership acts contrary to the interests of its members and views its primary role as one of providing unfailing support for the AOC and Judicial Council?”

Perhaps CJA can once again represent the interests of the judges of the State of California.  Should that happen, I will consider rejoining the association.  For that to take place, CJA’s leaders must come to realize that their role is to represent judges, the vast majority of whom serve in the trial courts, even if that requires them to take principled stands against the policies and initiatives of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Judicial Council and the Chief Justice.  The current board has repeatedly demonstrated that your views as Executive Director, and those of the rank and file members of the association, matter very little to them as they choose to promote their own personal agendas at the expense of the association as a whole.  They are now free to pursue their own self-interest without my financial assistance.

Sincerely,

W. Kent Hamlin

Superior Court of California for the County of Fresno

Posted in: CJA Resignations