Ex-Court Commissioner Loses Case Against Judges

     (CN) – Judges on the Contra Costa Superior Court’s Executive Committee are immune from a former court commissioner’s claim that they made her ineligible for her job in retaliation for challenging an incumbent judge in a local election, the 9th Circuit ruled.
     Denise Schmidt was the temporary commissioner of Contra Costa County Superior Court from 1998 until 2004, when the court’s Executive Committee approved a policy requiring all temporary judges, referees and commissioners to be active members of the California Bar for at least five years immediately preceding their appointments.
     Schmidt, who had become “inactive” when she took the temporary court commissioner position in 1998, was one of only four people affected by the new policy.
     She claimed the decision to adopt the new policy was in retaliation for her 2003 bid to unseat incumbent Judge John Sugiyama in a local election.
     Judge Lois Haight, who prepared a draft of the new policy that same year, had donated to Sugiyama’s campaign. So had Judge Barry Baskin, who also held a fundraiser for Sugiyama in his home.
     Schmidt claimed her “inactive State Bar status became a campaign issue during the election,” which she lost in March 2004.
     In mid-May, the Superior Court’s Executive Committee unanimously approved an amended version of the policy presented about a month and a half after the election.
     That same day, Schmidt was told that she was no longer eligible to serve as temporary court commissioner under the new policy. When she claimed that the committee judges “were targeting her,” Commissioner Steven Houghton told her that the new policy “wasn’t about her,” according to the ruling.
     Schmidt filed a federal lawsuit against the county, the court, the Judicial Council of California, the Administrative Office of the Courts, Court Executive Officer Ken Torre, and committee judges Laurel Brady, Thomas Maddock, Lois Haight and Barry Baskin.
     Schmidt whittled the defendants to just Torre, Maddock and Brady after a federal judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss with leave to amend.
     Following some back-and-forth procedural appeals, the federal judge dismissed Schmidt’s claims on the basis of legislative immunity.
     The federal appeals court in San Francisco agreed, though it addressed immunity for the judges only and not Torre.
     “While the timing and targeted effect of the Superior Court’s policy are certainly suspicious, we do not reach the merits of Schmidt’s federal or state law retaliation claims because the judges of the Superior Court’s Executive Committee enjoy legislative immunity for their decision to alter the minimum qualifications to serve as a temporary commissioner,” Judge Richard Paez wrote for the three-judge panel.
     “[I]t is not for the courts to determine whether legislators had ‘dishonest or vindictive motives’ when they passed a specific piece of legislation,” Paez added, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
     “Here, the Executive Committee was ‘within its province’ when it promulgated the policy, and we can comment no further.”

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