The audit is the first in the 55-year history of the agency. It comes at a time of stepped up criticism by litigants and legislators, who decry its lack of transparency, and judges — who believe it hands out discipline for minor infractions and doesn’t give them information on complaints made against them.
The audit request was made by Sen. Hannah Beth-Jackson of Santa Barbara, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who is married to a retired judge, and Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker of Dublin.
It asks State Auditor Elaine Howle to examine more than two dozen questions broadly covering the agency’s “policies and practices for handling and resolving complaints against judges.”
Those complaints are dealt with largely in secret under the policies of the commission. All complaints made against a judge are confidential — the commission does not confirm if it has received a complaint.
The commission’s annual statistics shows that it routinely dismissed 90 percent of complaints made without an investigation or inquiry, determining the complaints were unfounded. Of the 1,231 complaints received in 2015, for example, 41 resulted in some kind of discipline. Most were handled privately, with no public record of the outcome.
The commission’s report said that it issued private discipline — an advisory letter or admonishment — in 37 cases.
Public discipline, in which the name of the judge and the circumstances describing the misconduct become public, was handed out in four cases.
The lack of information on the outcome of a complaint, and how long it takes to find out, can be frustrating. Len Simon, a San Diego lawyer, was one of more than a dozen people who filed a complaint with the commission more than 2 ½ years ago.
It concerned San Diego Superior Court Judge Gary Kreep and his campaign for a seat on the bench in 2012. The complaint said Kreep violated judicial ethics by misrepresenting his qualifications and those of his opponent, and violated campaign finance rules.
Simon said he has not been told anything about the disposition of the complaint since.
“I’m very frustrated,” he said. “Two-and-a-half years is a long time. If a judge did something wrong, they should be reprimanded, and if not, they should be cleared. You just don't get much information from them.”
In a statement after the audit was approved, Assemblywoman Baker sounded a similar theme.
“The public deserves to know how the CJP investigates and disposes of complaints against judges, and there is very little information available about the complaint and disciplinary process,” she said. “Transparency is essential to ensure due process and confidence in our judicial system.”
Legislators have also been frustrated with the committee since Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. The light sentence sparked outrage and a move to recall Persky from the bench.
Nearly a dozen legislators have called for CJP to investigate Persky’s conduct, and the commission offices were picketed. Because of its policies, the commission has declined to say whether it has received other complaints about the judge.
The commission’s executive director, Victoria Henley, did not respond to a message seeking comment on the audit last week.
In April a new Bay Area group, Court Reform LLC, published a study comparing California's judicial discipline record to Texas, New York and Arizona.
The analysis found Arizona's discipline rate was four times higher than California’s. Texas received about the same number of complaints about judges as California, but investigated three times as many complaints as California, and publicly disciplined three times as many judges.
“When judges know that their oversight agency is going to take every complaint seriously and be held publicly accountable, that is going to result in less misconduct,” said Joe Sweeney, founder of Court Reform, who has been pushing for the audit for months.
The audit request outlines 26 questions, and several have to do with complaints judges have had over the years about the commission. In general judges contend they don’t get enough information about the substance of the accusation against them and who is making them.
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Legislature approves audit of judicial ethics agency