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Admonished and under investigation, two respected local judges now stand as symbols of a courthouse in crisis

Two of the most respected judges in Humboldt County could face criminal charges depending on the outcome of a California Attorney General's Office review of allegations that they submitted false affidavits to the state in order to receive their salaries.

The review — conducted at the request of Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming — follows a pair of public admonishments issued by the Commission on Judicial Performance, the state body tasked with the oversight and discipline of the state's nearly 2,000 judges. The admonishments — issued to Humboldt County Superior Court judges Dale Reinholtsen and Christopher Wilson — are in and of themselves a big deal. The commission fields some 1,200 complaints a year but metes out discipline, ranging from private advisory letters to removing judges from offices, in only 40 or so cases annually. Reinholtsen and Wilson are the only Humboldt County judges to be publicly disciplined by the commission since its formation in 1960.

But while the admonishments constitute black marks that threaten to forever stain Wilson and Reinholtsen's careers, they've been met with mixed reactions in the Humboldt County Courthouse, in large part because the judges are widely considered thoughtful, thorough and hard working. Some see the admonishments as the result of a "crushing" and unrealistic caseload and a courthouse in crisis. Others concede that may be true, but argue it doesn't excuse allegedly signing sworn affidavits that proved to be false. And there is universal concern over what the admonishments will mean for the future of the Humboldt County bench, which already has one vacancy and four more expected in the coming years.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTIAN PENNINGTON
  • Illustration by Christian Pennington

The allegations against Reinholtsen and Wilson stem from a provision in the California constitution that requires the state's judges to decide matters submitted to them within 90 days. The Legislature later codified the constitutional provision by requiring judges to submit affidavits to the state swearing that they don't have any matters pending before them that are more than 90 days old in order to receive their paychecks. If they have a backlog of decisions, the state withholds their salaries until they've cleared their desks of delinquent matters.

The Commission on Judicial Performance alleged in public admonishments — the first issued to Reinholtsen in September and the second to Wilson in January — that both judges repeatedly signed the affidavits while they had delinquent decisions pending and that both illegally received their salaries from the state on numerous occasions. Specifically, Reinholtsen is alleged to have 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. The commission alleged Wilson signed eight false salary affidavits and received his salary on six occasions when it should have been withheld under the law. In aggravation, the commission noted that Wilson was privately admonished for similar behavior 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.

University of California Hastings College of Law professor David Levine said the 90-day rule is not without controversy. Some argue it's a harsh rule that limits judges' abilities to issue thoughtful, well-researched rulings, especially in jurisdictions with heavy caseloads, Levine said. In the state's higher courts, Levine said, some feel the rule has undercut the importance of oral arguments, as the courts won't schedule the hearings — in which attorneys get their only chance to plead their cases in person — until the court's justices have already reached a tentative ruling. While Levine said some, including himself, are critical of the rule, it clearly serves to prevent case backlogs and the possibility of decisions pending indefinitely.

"The law's the law. I personally think it's kind of a dumb, draconian rule. But a rule's a rule," Levine said.

Locally, the situation is largely seen as a murky one. Dustin Owens, president of the Humboldt County Bar Association, said the matter was brought up at a recent meeting and the association's members debated whether to make a public statement on the matter, whether it be condemning the judges' actions or defending them. There was no consensus. "When you have 30 lawyers in a room, you can't get them to agree on anything," Owens said. Owens said he personally feels the admonishments were "kind of unfair" to two extremely hard-working judges. "From the people I've talked to, the lawyers I've talked to, everybody really likes both of the judges that were admonished. They do a good job. And, they probably overwork themselves."

Those who see the situation as Owens does point out that caseloads in Humboldt County are overwhelming. They note the fact that the state has determined Humboldt needs two additional judges to manage its current caseload, yet has so far refused to fund the new positions. They argue that court is limited by having only seven courtrooms and that it sometimes struggles to keep them all open with a critical staffing shortage. In fact, 21 percent of court operations staff positions are either vacant or were recently eliminated. (Court staff positions are allocated and employed by the state.)

But while the consensus inside and outside of Humboldt is that caseloads are unsustainable, the most recent data available from the state doesn't entirely bear that out. According to statistics from 2014, the most recent year available, Humboldt ranked 24th out of California's 58 counties for case dispositions for judicial position, with 3,198 per judge. That's a far cry from Imperial County, which ranked dead last with 6,129 dispositions per judge, or Alpine County, where the judges apparently had it pretty easy with just 599 dispositions apiece.

But some caution that those stats are deceiving. Humboldt County judges have minimal support staff, they point out, with only one staff attorney to research case law for all seven judges and a pair of administrative assistants the judges share with the court executive office. Humboldt County also has a disproportionate amount of pending homicide cases, which are lengthy and labor intensive, tying up court rooms for weeks at a time and bogging judges down with flurries of motions and evidentiary hearings.

It's civil cases that often take a back seat, as criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial and timely hearings. Local attorney Timothy Needham said he has one civil case that's currently been pending for six years. He said the case has been ready for trial but postponed at its last eight court appearances because there haven't been any courtrooms or judges available.

The consensus of nearly everyone who works in a county courtroom is that Humboldt's caseload is crushing, and only growing. Even the Commission on Judicial Performance pointed to caseload as a potentially mitigating factor in its admonishments of Reinholtsen and Wilson.

Local attorney Bill Verick disagrees, as do others who said they didn't want to be identified criticizing sitting judges. If you pick up the latest copy of the Daily Journal — a legal newspaper — or California Lawyer magazine, Verick said, you'll find lists of lawyers in the back pages who have been disciplined by the California State Bar Association.

"If you read the things that lawyers are most likely to get disbarred for — in other words, it's taken very seriously when they do it — it's lying about money or stealing money, or committing fraud," Verick said. "These judges, what they did is they signed an affidavit that wasn't true. Signing an affidavit that you know is not true; the definition of that is perjury.

"If that's perjury — and that's what it looks like — then it was perjury committed to get paid money that they were not due, and that's called fraud. And fraud to get money over $1,000 is grand theft in California. The state bar is very unforgiving about that kind of behavior in a private lawyer. And I think it's entirely fair to hold a judge to a higher standard."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTIAN PENNINGTON
  • Illustration by Christian Pennington

Verick added that people have been prosecuted for mortgage fraud for failing to disclose that the money used for a down payment was actually a loan from their parents, and he's seen at least one local defendant prosecuted for welfare fraud for a seemingly small violation. Consequently, he isn't sympathetic when people raise judicial caseloads as an excuse for Reinholtsen and Wilson's alleged conduct.

"All I can say is the California constitution says what it says. You can say, 'It's unfair,' but that's what the law is," Verick said. "Judges should obey the law. What do they mean when they say caseload is a mitigating factor? Is it that the caseload is a mitigating factor because the judge is so busy he doesn't know what he's doing? If that were the case, I would agree but I don't think that's what they're saying. I think what they're saying is that it's regrettable but excusable to sign a false affidavit in order to get paid because their caseload is heavy. I don't agree with that. The answer to that is to change the California constitution or the law or to give them more than 90 days or to give the court more judges; it's not to let them sign a false affidavit."

In January, Judge Bruce Watson retired after 23 years on the bench. Though Watson announced the move back in May of last year, Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to appoint a replacement, and it appears he's having some trouble finding a suitable pool of candidates. Owens said he was contacted last month and asked to solicit another round of applications from the local Bar's members. Humboldt hasn't seen a contested judicial election in nearly two decades, since Wilson won his seat in 1998, and it appears being a judge in Humboldt isn't a very desirable position, even with its $179,000 annual salary.

Owens said there's no denying that the pay is good and the health and retirement packages are great, but he quickly added that the position can be isolating. Others pointed said it can also be monotonous and somewhat depressing.

"The job doesn't seem enviable," said one local attorney who declined to be identified. "It's 10 hours a day, and it's very, very repetitive. Plus, it's a pretty crushing workload."

Needham, who represented Reinholtsen before the Commission on Judicial Performance but declined to talk about his specific situation, said the workload also creates morale issues on the bench, noting that its essentially staffed at 75 percent of what it needs, according to the state. "It creates this horrible friction among the judges themselves because nobody can keep up," Needham said, explaining that the additional workload isn't necessarily spread evenly across all judges.

Needham and others said the admonishments of Wilson and Reinholtsen may scare away some considering applying or running for a judgeship. "It happened to the one guy who's working harder than anyone," one Eureka attorney said, referring to Reinholtsen, who numerous attorneys said regularly works weekends.

Kim Bartleson, who took over as Humboldt's court executive officer in October, said she and court management are working diligently to do what they can to smooth operations and bring in reinforcements but much is out of local hands. She said she currently has a line of visiting judges to fill Watson's seat until an appointment is made, which she was told may not be until 2018 (Bartleson said she stressed Humboldt County's "urgent need" to the governor's office). And Bartleson said she is busily filling staff vacancies and getting new hires trained, hoping to at least eliminate the staffing shortage that sometimes contributes to clogged court calendars. (She said the staffing shortage has been so bad at times that it's necessitated closing down courtrooms because she doesn't have clerks to staff them.)

She said she's also researching a pre-tem program that would allow trained local attorneys to sit in as judges on a temporary basis and hear low-level cases. But even if Humboldt County had additional judges, it wouldn't have anywhere permanent to put them. The county and the Judicial Council are discussing a courthouse expansion to build additional courtrooms, but that's years away under the best case scenario.

And looming on the horizon are four more retirements, as Timothy Cissna, Marilyn Miles, John Feeney and Reinholtsen all have close to 20 years on the bench and are rumored to be mulling hanging up their robes at the end of their current six-year terms. A prolonged vacancy in any of Humboldt's seven judicial positions could pose some problems. Multiple vacancies at once could be hugely problematic.

Needham said it's fair to wonder where all these new judges are going to come from. Would he — a well respected local attorney with a lengthy resume — consider throwing his name into contention? He answered without hesitation: "Not in a million years."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTIAN PENNINGTON
  • Illustration by Christian Pennington

As the Attorney General's Office mulls what to do with Reinholtsen and Wilson, it appears Humboldt County's bench is approaching a critical period, with large changes on the horizon.

Wilson and Reinholtsen declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Presiding Judge Joyce Hinrichs. Attorney General Press Secretary Rachele Huennekens declined to offer any status update on the case, other than to say her office is evaluating the matter. For his part, Levine said he thinks the Attorney General's Office will take a very careful look at Reinholtsen and Wilson's cases, though he said it's hard to know if they will choose to prosecute. If the attorney general were to bring perjury charges, it would have to prove that both men knew their affidavits were false at the time they signed them and that they knew they had delinquent cases. Convictions would be devastating for the judges. Because perjury is considered a crime of moral turpitude, they would not only be removed from office but also disbarred.

Humboldt sits in an unprecedented situation. Since the Commission on Judicial Performance was formed in 1960, it has only publicly reprimanded 17 judges for filing false salary affidavits. Never has it admonished two judges from the same county in a six-month span. Is this evidence of something culturally afoul on the Humboldt bench or just a symptom of an unsustainable workload in a pressure-packed environment? It's hard to say, but Levine said the admonishments are cause for concern.

"Signing these affidavits, that's troublesome," he said. "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."

Editor's Note: This story was updated from a previous version to properly identify the Humboldt County Bar Association.

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