Ex-California Judge Censured Over Misconduct

(CN) – California’s judicial watchdog on Wednesday barred a former rural county judge from returning to the bench, finding the judge “played by his own rules” during the 2018 election in which he finished second for state attorney general.

Wrapping up a year-long investigation laden with allegations of cronyism, the state Commission on Judicial Performance concluded former El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Steven Bailey ignored ethics laws by steering work to his son and fundraising for his state bid while still on the bench.

The commission publicly censured and barred Bailey from holding judicial office or accepting assignments from any state court. Its scathing decision says the “breadth and nature” of Bailey’s misconduct reflects the “strong likelihood” that he would continue violating ethics laws if allowed back.

“The commission’s review of the record and observation of Judge Bailey reveals a judge who plays by his own rules with little concern for whether his conduct comports with the rules applicable to all judges under the Code of Judicial Ethics,” the 43-page decision states. 

Bailey, a Republican, advanced in the state primary for attorney general but fell over 3.3 million votes short of the incumbent Xavier Becerra in the general election. He performed well in California’s rural counties, including El Dorado County, but was thoroughly trounced in metropolitan areas by the Democratic Becerra. He served on the Superior Court between 2009 and 2017 before retiring.

Bailey and his lawyers painted the ethics investigation as “politically motivated” and accused the commission of trying to sink Bailey’s upstart attorney general bid. They said the commission was attempting to stifle the candidate’s First Amendment rights.

“The elephant in the room is Bailey’s decision to run for attorney general; that’s what this case is all about,” the judge’s lawyer James Murphy told the commission at a hearing this past September.

The firm representing the judge, Murphy Pearson Bradley & Feeney of San Francisco, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision.

The commission says Bailey funneled criminal defendants to an alcohol monitoring company that employs his son, and appointed his lawyer-friend Bradley Clark as special master to a case at the rate of $350 per hour without disclosing their relationship.

“The judge had stayed overnight at Clark’s house on at least one occasion. Clark had given the judge gifts of tickets to charity events. Judge Bailey officiated at Clark’s wedding,” the commission found.

Aside from nepotism claims, the commission says Bailey used his judicial title while on the bench to fundraise before officially announcing his attorney general campaign. It says Bailey’s campaign violated the Political Reform Act by collecting over $17,000 in campaign contributions before filing a required candidate intention statement to run for attorney general.

Bailey acknowledged soliciting and receiving campaign donations before filing, but stated it was an “inadvertent” mistake by his new treasurer.

The former judge, who graduated from Lincoln Law School, is still active with the State Bar of California. He can appeal to the state Supreme Court to challenge the commission’s disciplinary actions.

But the commission, composed of six public members, three judges and two lawyers, didn’t mince words in describing Bailey’s time on the bench.

“Judge Bailey has violated the Code of Judicial Ethics both on the bench and off the bench,” the decision concludes. “Citizens are expected to comply with the rule of law. Public respect for the judiciary cannot help but be eroded when a judge fails to abide by laws and rules applicable to the judiciary.”

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