State judges who were elected, worked in smaller communities or had been previously disciplined were more likely to be sanctioned for misconduct during the past two decades, according to figures from the California Commission on Judicial Performance.
California imposed 878 disciplinary actions against trial court judges from 1990 through 2011, according to the commission, which investigates complaints against the state's judiciary.
More than half of the disciplinary actions between 1990 and 2009 involved judges who had been previously sanctioned, according to a recent study conducted for the commission.
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“When we see repeat offenders, the bells should go off, because it means that it is not just a problem with the judges, it is a problem with the oversight itself,” said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in judicial ethics.
Commission officials dismissed such concerns.
"The commission takes the obligation to protect the public very seriously," said Victoria Henley, the agency's director-chief counsel. "There may be some instances where the commission gives a judge another chance. And usually it is because the judge has taken steps to avoid a problem reoccurring."
The most common violations involved judges who failed to disqualify themselves from cases to avoid conflicts of interest, denied someone's constitutional rights or lacked decorum in the courtroom, the report found. The review did not offer specifics on the judges who were sanctioned.
Sanctions against judges ranged from an advisory letter, the most common form of discipline, to removal from the bench. Advisory letters and private admonishments are confidential. The letters are known as "stinger letters" by some judges, who view them as light admonishments that still bite.
It is rare for the commission to remove a judge. Over the past decade, the commission has not removed more than two judges a year.
Judges who were initially elected were disciplined more frequently than those who were initially appointed, according to the report. One reason may be that a commission of the State Bar of California screens judicial nominees before the governor appoints them. There is no such screening process for elected candidates.
Experienced judges were disciplined more frequently than novice judges between 2000 and 2009. The report did not explain why.
Judges in small courts were also more likely to be disciplined. Between 1990 and 1999, the commission issued sanctions against trial court judges in small communities at more than twice the rate as their counterparts in counties with the largest courts, the report said.
Judges facing disciplinary proceedings who have undergone ethics training every three years have the costs of their legal defense covered by an insurance plan underwritten by taxpayers.
The commission said its study, which examines the types of judges who have been disciplined and how they were sanctioned, is unprecedented in its scope. Although the report excluded statistics from the past two years, data available on the commission's website show a total of 46 disciplinary actions in 2010 and 42 in 2011, up from 31 in 2009, marking the highest yearly totals in the past decade.
“That strikes me as a fairly high number,” said Levenson. “We should be concerned that there are enough bad apples getting through that we have to keep an eye on things. The more judges who have committed misconduct, the more likely that the public will lose confidence in the function of the courts."
Californians have no reason to question the integrity of the state’s legal system, said David Rubin, president of the California Judges Association, which represents 2,600 justices, judges and court commissioners.
“Obviously one judge disciplined is one too many, but the citizens of California should have great confidence in the quality of the bench,” said Rubin, a superior court judge in San Diego County. “The ethics of the judicial officers are second to none in United States.”
But after five years of budget cuts, Henley, the commission's director-chief counsel, said it often takes longer to investigate complaints against the state's judges. The agency has fewer attorneys to handle investigations and takes longer to resolve cases, she said.