Is the Chief subverting the constitution with assigned judges?

Posted on June 25, 2011

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Official seal of County of Shasta

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As a recent op-ed from the reformer indicated, the assigned judges program is being abused. Wouldn’t it be great if, as the AOC or Judicial Council you could pick the judge that heard your case? Better yet, wouldn’t it be swell if you picked someone with judicial-political aspirations of going to a higher court? As illustrated by the reformers case, this is precisely what is happening.

The assigned judges program is ripe for abuse by the AOC and it is being abused. According to some preliminary statistics gathered from the AOC, about 400 judges served as assigned judges in 2010. Out of those 400 judges, about a third of them (133)  sat on the bench managing a courtroom and being re-appointed to the bench every 60 days for many, many years.

In many cases, many of these 133 of the ‘good ol boys club’ retire on a Friday and start collecting their pensions. On Monday, they return to the exact same courtroom they served in previously before they retired and they are earning nearly double their pay.

Prior to their retirement they filled the slot of an elected judicial officer, subject to retention elections and CJP oversight. Once appointed, they are no longer subject to retention elections nor CJP oversight. They are free to roam California’s courtrooms as loose cannons accountable to only the AOC, which as we know, means they are accountable to no one.

Assigned judges are a vehicle under which judges can be backfilled due to absences, workload or challenges and require re-appointment to the bench by the chief justice every 30-60 days. These are intended as temporary assignments and while most assigned judges might spend no more than 90 days per year sitting on the bench, some of the assigned judges ‘good ol boys club’ have been sitting as an assigned judge in the same courtroom, collecting two salaries for greater than 10 years. This brings us to the controversial use of perpetual appointment as an abuse of authority. Does the Chief Justice have the right to appoint and re-appoint a judge to the bench for years at a time and undermine the will of the electorate?

Meet Retired Judge Jack Halpin of Shasta County. Retired from the bench, he has been re-appointed in perpetuity since 1994 – for over seventeen years. While he should have been subject to three retention elections, he is above the law and has been subjected to no retention elections. It must be nice to be Jack Halpin.

With only AOC oversight (and we all know how that goes: bury the dirt and leave no trace) and the locals questioning weather or not Judge Halpin suffers from dementia the sole determinant of his fitness for the bench is two hundred miles south inside the AOC.

Of course, having no method whatsoever to determine Judge Halpin’s fitness for the bench and for his respected service as a member of the “good ol boy’s club” Judge Halpin enjoys the uncommon perk of absolute judicial immunity. He is fit for the bench because the AOC re-assigned him to the bench and that’s the end of it. All complaints against Jack Halpin spanning over a decade are without merit because the AOC says they are. Of course, should anyone actually file suit to question this, it will be the same group that appointed him that will work to defend him. They will pay for and pick the counsel, they will choose the venue and the judge to hear any such case.  Unlike judges going before the CJP who must get their own legal counsel, Judge Halpin can rely on a far higher power to defend him in the AOC.

He is free to accept bribes. He is free to rule against responsible parents and railroad children into cottage industries, knowing that responsible parents will fight like hell to get their kids back whereas irresponsible parents rarely will. While this is a disease that affects parts of the bench all over California, it’s especially sinister when the judge is assigned, cannot be held accountable by the people and is, in effect, accountable to no one.

According to the AOC, there are 133 “Jack Halpins” throughout the California Court system,  subverting the constitution at the hands of the chief justice. These people are re-appointed in perpetuity without ever having to stand up to a retention election.

This disease, as we understand it began with Chief Justice Ronald Georgbefore his appointment of the judge to the Scott Peterson case. Whereas it had previously been customary to assign a case to a court and permit the local court to determine which local judge would hear the case, Scott Peterson was the first defendant to ever have his case heard by an assigned judge appointed by the Chief Justice. When Chief Justice George was called on it, a new (unwritten) rule of court was introduced that would permit him to not only determine the venue but determine the judge. Of course, it was made retroactive just like SBx211.

We further understand from the AOC that 26 of the 133 positions being filled by long term assigned judges are authorized positions that the Governor should easily be able to make appointments to fill their slots. Of course, NO ONE HAS TOLD THE GOVERNOR THIS because these positions are already filled – with assigned judges.

Judicial Council Watcher calls upon the Chief Justice to remake these rules of court and comply with the spirit and intent of the California Constitution. Repeal the rule that permits the AOC to appoint the actual judge and limit such cases to appointing the venue. Establish a rule of court that limits appointments to the same court to no more than three consecutive re-appointments to the same court in a year and stop abusing this process.

Furthermore, no judge should be above the law and not subject to CJP oversight. Since we all know that AOC oversight is equivalent to no oversight whatsoever, we call upon the state legislature to pass a law in the absence of rules of court that subject assigned judges and court commisioners to the same rules and oversight as other judges.

No one should be above the law or subverting the California Constitution.

Most especially the Chief Justice.

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