Judge’s Ejection From CA Murder Case Upheld

     SAN DIEGO (CN) — A California appeals court ruled that Orange County district attorney was entitled to ask for a judge’s disqualification in a murder trial, although the panel urged the state high court to consider whether abuse of the practice impedes justice.
     The ruling stems from the murder trial of Rito Tejeda, an Orange County man charged with stabbing Frederick Sledge in a Huntington Beach apartment.
     Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard King assigned Judge Thomas Goethals to the case. And the Orange County DA promptly filed a motion to have Goethals disqualified from the case.
     When it comes to murder trials, Goethals and the DA’s office have a long history of being at loggerheads. In January 2012, Goethals granted several defense motions in the case People v. Dekraai, finding that the DA and law enforcement engaged in misconduct, and eventually disqualified the DA’s office from the case.
     Between December 2010 and February 2014, Goethals was assigned to 35 murder trials and the state disqualified him once. In the 18 months after that, however, he was disqualified 46 times out of 49.Under California law, each party or attorney gets one peremptory motion, and such motions are generally not the subject of a hearing.
     The DA’s office says that it is up to a given attorney in its office to decide whether to use a peremptory challenge and that it is, in fact, a tactic more commonly used by the defense. From February 2014 to December 2015, there were 847 separate peremptory challenges in Orange County: 501 were brought by the defense, and the defense has challenged 40 different judges to the DA’s nine. Prosecutors have “consistently litigated their cases in front of Judge Goethals,” the DA’s office said in a statement following the Fourth Appellate District panel’s ruling.
     The district attorney also took issue with the appellate panel’s concern that the DA’s frequent demands to disqualify Goethals amounts to “blanket papering” and an abuse of civil procedure.
     “Although the OCDA agrees with the DCA’s ruling, the OCDA maintains that there has never been ‘blanket papering’ of any judicial officer. Any exercise of peremptory challenge made by any member of the OCDA has been the individual prosecutor’s decision to do what is in the best interest of the People, public safety, and crime victims,” the office said.
     In the order denying the DA’s challenge of Goethals — the subject of the appeal — King said constant challenges of Goethals wreak havoc with the court’s case load. Goethals is one of only five long-cause judges, and King found that the resulting backlog had resulted in hundreds of felony cases going unresolved.
     Accordingly, King denied the state’s challenge of Goethals in Tejeda’s murder case, calling it an improper “blanket” challenge.
     The DA then filed a writ of mandate with the Fourth Appellate District, arguing that King’s refusal to disqualify Goethals would mean that a judge can summarily deny any affidavit, filed by any attorney, in any case, when the judge suspects an ulterior motive.
     Fourth Appellate District Judge Kathleen O’Leary, writing for the panel, said that civil procedure clearly indicates that “a party can disqualify a judge by executing a sworn statement indicating a belief that the party cannot have a fair trial before the assigned judge.”
     This precedent was set by the California Supreme Court in Solberg v. Superior Court, a 1977 opinion which held a state court judge had no right to refuse to recuse herself from a criminal case. The high court held that hypothetical abuses of power were “a relatively inconsequential price to be paid for the efficient and discreet procedure provided in section 170.6.”
     Accordingly, O’Leary said that the appeals court had no choice but to “conclude Solberg precluded respondent court from assessing the motivations and weighing the consequences of the district attorney’s peremptory challenges as a basis for denying a section 170.6 motion on separation of powers grounds.”
     O’Leary did, however, urge the state’s high court to revisit Solberg, and noted the particular difficulties California courts have in dispensing justice in the face of budget cuts.
     David Dworakowski, assistant public defender for Orange County, represents Tejeda. He said that the DA’s “vindictive papering” was not valid because it was not done in good faith.
     “We’re reviewing the matter to see if we’re going to file a petition for review with the California Supreme Court.”
     Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas and deputy district attorneys Stephan Sauer and Brian Fitzpatrick represented the People’s interest in the action. The court was represented by Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP of Venice, California, and Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
     Chemerinsky declined to comment. None of the attorneys other were available to respond to phone calls for comment on Thursday.

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