SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A letter from a Santa Barbara judge sent on apparently fake letterhead earlier this week to California’s chief justice attacked the influence of Los Angeles judges on a controversial bill pending in the state legislature, and it brought a swift and strong reaction from Los Angeles late Friday.
In a letter sent to California’s chief justice this week, Santa Barbara Judge James Herman wrote that results from a recent survey of California judges were skewed in favor of AB 1208, legislation that would return fiscal and policy authority to the state’s trial courts. The results were skewed, said Herman, because of the size of the Los Angeles contingent of judges.
One of the controversial aspects of Herman’s letter is that he apparently grabbed art from the website of the California Judges Association, the dominant, oldline group representing a broad spectrum of California’s judges, and then pasted it on the top of his own letter to the chief. Herman is a member of the judges association.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is on record as opposed to AB 1208, and Herman appears to have her favor. The chief recently appointed the Santa Barbara judge to chair a committee looking into the merits and management of a highly controversial IT project pushed by the judiciary’s central administrators.
In a sharp reaction to Herman’s letter using “faux letterhead,” as one official put it, six judges from Los Angeles wrote to the head of the judge association, San Bernardino Judge Keith Davis of San Bernardino, condemning the letter and asking for an emergency meeting of the association’s board to look into the matter.
“We request that an executive committee meeting be held by close of business today, preferably 3:30 p.m. at which time we plan to request that you immediately advise the Chief Justice in writing on our official letterhead that the letter from Judge Herman was unauthorized, misleading, and does not represent the views of CJA as a whole,” wrote judges Kevin Brazile, James Dabney, Mary Thornton House, Charles “Tim” McCoy, Joanne O’Donnell and Zaven Sinanian
In response to Herman’s general charge that Los Angeles had influenced by its numbers the overall tabulation of votes, the six Los Angeles judges asked for a breakdown of the voting percentage within each district of the judges association, to be included in the letter to the chief. “The letter should include a breakdown by district of CJA survey results,” said the letter from Los Angeles.
The judges association, as a whole, has officially decided to remain neutral on AB 1208 after polling its 2600-judge membership earlier this year and finding them closely divided. The overall totals from the survey a slender majority of judges supporting the bill to return control of the purse to the local courts.
In the Santa Barbara judge’s letter to the chief, Herman says he is writing as a CJA representative for eight central coast counties, arguing that the slim majority in favor of the legislation is due to the overwhelming response from Los Angeles and weighted by by the large number of judges from Los Angeles.
“No doubt,” he said, “a closer look at other districts would show additional significant deviations from the averaged numbers set forth in the survey.” Herman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In their answering letter, the Los Angeles six said, “A regrettable event has occurred. A member of the board used a modified (ergo faux) CJA logo/masthead art in a letter to the Chief Justice that posits a position that was not authorized by you or by any resolution of the CJA’s board.”
“The unauthorized use of such letterhead artwork making it appear as though it is written on behalf of CJA is disturbing,” the letter continued. “The content of the letter goes further. By referencing yet unreleased and confidential (to date) data, the letter speaks authoritatively about issues on which CJA – due to the nearly divided views of its members-chose to remain neutral. This letter not only nuanced, but contradicted the bulk of our statewide membership’s positions.”
The Los Angeles judges ended their letter by saying Herman’s gambit undercut the goals of the organization as a whole.
“The 2600 members of CJA look to this association to speak for them, which may mean taking positions that differ with branch management, the legislature, and the public otherwise, what would be the purpose of CJA? When this rogue letter states that the goal of CJA is to be part of a ‘unified third branch that can speak with one voice’, we have eschewed the purpose for which our statewide members pay dues.”
The judges association is comprised largely of trial courts judges. That group is sometimes, and espcially now, at odds with other constituencies within the judiciary, or third branch of government, where administrators, the judicial council and the chief justice hold a great deal of power.
Two central sources of division between the trial courts and the higher administrative levels of the judiciary are a highly expensive IT project paid for at the expense of the trial courts and AB 1208 returning control of operating funds to the trial courts themselves.
Along with the letter from the six judges in Los Angeles, a seventh, Susan Lopez-Giss, wrote her own thoughts which were circulated to judges throughout the Los Angeles court.
“As a member of CJA I am distressed at Judge Herman’s letter,” she said. “Judge Herman believes that he has the power and authority to speak on behalf of CJA. He has written a letter that has now been used in the press to pit smaller counties against Los Angeles. I am struggling with why I pay dues to such an organization which offers no support to the needs of the people of Los Angeles who voted me and the rest of you our positions.”
In another missive within the storm of controversy, the director of the California Judges Association, Stan Bissey, sent an internal email sharply critical of Herman’s move.
“Judge Herman was out of line sending his own letter to the chief on faux CJA letterhead,” said Bissey. “He used art from our website not the official CJA logo or masthead, apparently right clicked to save the art and pasted into his own message.”
“The positioning of Los Angeles versus the rest of the State (real or not) is not helpful from a CJA perspective and as much as it may seem like an ultimatum, CJA would be radically different should we face the mass exodus of 500 members from Los Angeles for membership in yet another potential rival Judges association,” Bissey noted.
He added that one member of the board “going rogue” is not helpful to the assocation as a whole nor within its rules. “This was un-acceptable,” wrote Bissey, “and something needs to be done to show the rest of the board that we cannot have 25 individual spokespeople as the voice of the judiciary.”