Sunday, March 13, 2016

TL;DR: Five Things You Need to Know from This Week's Cover Story

Posted By on Sun, Mar 13, 2016 at 11:36 AM

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Busy week? We get it, and we're not judging. Here are some highlights from “Judged” to get you caught up.

Two respected local judges were recently thrust into the glare of the media spotlight when the California Commission on Judicial Performance publicly admonished them for failing to decide their cases on time and, perhaps more importantly, submitting false affidavits to the state and receiving their salary in violation of California law. Humboldt County Superior Court judges Dale Reinholtsen and Christopher Wilson now find themselves under investigation by the California Attorney General’s Office, which is weighing whether to bring criminal charges.

Our cover story takes a look at the allegations facing the judges, the “crushing” caseloads in Humboldt County and what appears to be a rocky road ahead for the local bench. Here are five things you should know:

1) The admonishments are, in and of themselves, kind of a big deal. Since its inception in 1960, the Commission on Judicial Performance — the state body tasked with the oversight and discipline of the state’s almost 2,000 judges —has only taken public action against judges 17 times for deciding cases late or submitting false salary affidavits (more on that in No. 2). And, of the 1,200 or so complaints that come across its desk annually, the commission only takes action on 40 or so every year. Prior to admonishing Reinholtsen in September of last year, the commission had never taken public action against a Humboldt County judge.

2) The law is pretty straightforward and, some say, stupid and draconian. The state constitution obligates judges to decide all matters pending before them within 90 days. The Legislature later codified that, and mandated that judges sign an affidavit — a sworn statement under the penalty of perjury — stating that they have no matters pending beyond that 90-day mark in order to get paid. If judges fall behind, they don’t forfeit their pay, but their salary is held until they clear the backlog. Still, the potential penalty for violating the law is serious. If it’s determined the judges knowingly signed false affidavits, they could be charged with perjury, a conviction which would see them not only removed from office but also disbarred in California.

3) The commission alleged that Reinholtsen and Wilson were repeat violators. Reinholtsen allegedly decided 20 matters past the 90-day deadline, signed false affidavits seven times and illegally received his salary 13 times over the course of several years. Wilson allegedly signed eight false salary affidavits and received his salary on six occasions when it should been withheld. In aggravation, the commission alleged that Wilson was privately admonished back in 2007, when he allegedly decided seven cases more than 160 days after they were submitted to him and signed false salary affidavits on three occasions.

4) Caseloads in Humboldt are apparently crushing, which draws sympathy from some quarters, but not all. According to state statistics from 2014, Humboldt ranks only 24th in the state when it comes to judicial caseloads, but local attorneys argue that tells only part of the story. They point out that Humboldt has a disproportionately high number of murder and homicide cases, which slow everything else down. The state has also apparently determined that Humboldt needs two additional judges to keep up with current caseloads, but has yet to fund those positions. Further, judges in Humboldt County – who share a research attorney and a pair of administrative assistants — don’t have nearly the support staff of their counterparts in other areas of the state. This is apparently compounded by the fact that the court as a whole is understaffed, with 21 percent of its positions vacant or eliminated in recent years. Still, while this may explain the backlog, not everyone is sympathetic of the judges’ situation.

“Signing these affidavits, that's troublesome,” University of California Hastings College of Law professor David Levine told the Journal. “It’s one thing to miss deadlines, it’s another to sign the affidavits. It’s something of a technical violation. But on the other hand, you're signing something under the penalty of perjury and, of all people, to a judge that ought to mean something.”

It’s worth noting that the Commission on Judicial Performance doesn’t explicitly say whether it believes Reinholtsen and Wilson knowingly signed false affidavits or just committed a long series of honest mistakes.

5) Apparently being a judge in Humboldt, with an annual salary of $179,000, isn’t an attractive job. The county hasn’t had a contested judicial election since Wilson won his seat on the bench back in 1998. Further, it appears the governor’s office is having a difficult time appointing a replacement for judge Bruce Watson, who retired his post in January after 23 robed years. Dustin Owens, President of the Humboldt County Bar Association, said he was asked last month to solicit another round of applicants for the post, for which the governor’s office has been fielding applications since Watson announced his decision to retire last May. Attorneys interviewed by the Journal described a judgeship in Humboldt as a monotonous, depressing and isolating post that comes with long hours and a crushing caseload. Respected local attorney Timothy Needham, asked if he’d continue throwing his name into contention, responded without hesitation: “Not in a million years.”

Bonus: With more judicial vacancies looming, there is notable concern about the future of the local bench. Judges Reinholtsen, Timothy Cissna, Marilyn Miles and John Feeney all have close to 20 years experience — which is also the point at which they become eligible for a plush retirement package — and are rumored to be planning on hanging up their robes at the end of their current terms. More than a few attorneys expressed concern to the Journal about the likelihood of finding qualified replacements, especially in light of the recent admonishments, which some said singled out the county’s two hardest working judges.
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