|Judge Bruce C. Mills was charged with willful misconduct|
The two counts of misconduct include allegations that Judge Bruce C. Mills illegally doubled the sentence of a judicial rights advocate who Mills had found to be in contempt of court. Mills jailed the man for discussing his divorce online, a decision that First Amendment experts called, “outrageous” and a free speech violation.
The two charges were filed Friday by the Commission on Judicial Performance, the California government body that investigates ethical complaints into judges. Mills is required to provide a written answer to the charges within 20 days.
Per the California Constitution, Mills faces removal or admonishment if the charges are found true. The CJP’s action carries no criminal penalties. Mills could not be reached for comment.
Mills, a judge since 1995, has been disciplined five times since 2001. He was admonished in 2013 after the commision found 10-0 that he had “created an appearance of impropriety that undermined public confidence in the impartiality and integrity of the judiciary” when he interfered with a case in which his son was a defendant. In 2001, he was found to have coerced a guilty plea out of a DUI defendant.
Last year, Mills sentenced San Ramon resident Joseph Sweeney to 25 days in jail for contempt, after finding that Sweeney’s online writings violated another judge’s restraining order not to disclose the contents of his ex-wife’s cellphone or computer. But Sweeney argued that his writings were sourced from publicly-available court documents filed by his ex-wife.
In the hearing, Mills claimed that “matters that are put into court pleadings and brought up in oral argument before the court do not become public thereby,” a statement several First Amendment experts say wildly misstates the nature of court records.
According to the hearing transcript, Mills also made it clear that Sweeney’s 25-day sentence — the maximum for five counts of contempt of court — qualified for 50 percent good time credits, meaning Sweeney would likely only serve half his sentence. Under state law, people convicted of nonviolent crimes are set free after serving half their sentences, assuming they have no disciplinary problems.
But days later, after Sweeney was in the West Contra Costa Jail, Mills allegedly directed a court clerk to modify the sentence and revoke Sweeney’s good time credits. The CJP alleges Mills did so without notifying the parties in the case or giving them time to respond, a violation of ethics guidelines.
When Sweeney found out his good time credits had been revoked, he contacted his attorney, Jim Morrison, from jail. In a 2016 interview, Morrison said he faxed the copy of the original order — which said Sweeney would serve 50 percent time — to the sheriff and to Mills. Sweeney’s good time credits were reinstated later that day, Morrison said.
Ironically, Sweeney is a well-known judicial reform advocate who has publicly criticized the commission’s handling of judicial misconduct cases. He testified in front of the state legislature last year, calling for a state audit of the CJP. Mills jailed Sweeney two days after the legislature approved the audit.
“Finally, (the CJP) feels pressured to be doing something about judicial misconduct, which is a good indication,” Sweeney said in an interview Tuesday when asked for a response to the action against Mills.
After his release from jail, Sweeney filed multiple complaints against Mills and appealed the judge’s decision. Last November he received a response from then-presiding Judge Steve Austin, who said that altering the order was improper, but suggested that Mills simply didn’t know he’d violated a rule.
“I view this as a training issue and not as something more serious as you have described it in your letter,” Austin wrote. “I have taken appropriate corrective action.”
Similarly, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office reviewed the matter and determined Mills hadn’t committed a crime, chief deputy Doug MacMaster wrote in a letter to Sweeney last year.
The second misconduct charge alleges Mills had a courtroom conversation with the prosecutor in a DUI case Mills was presiding over, where the two discussed the case. During the conversation, Mills compared the case to one he handled as a prosecutor and suggested that someone may have to look into whether breathalyzer systems were faulty.
“You did not disclose on the record your conversation with (the prosecutor) or recuse yourself from further proceedings in the case until April 1, 2016, after the district attorney’s office disclosed the ex parte conversation to a supervising judge and to defense counsel,” CJP Chairperson Hon. Ignazio Ruvolo wrote in the charging records.
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Controversial East Bay judge charged with illegally doubling sentence