Crime & Justice

State watchdog dismisses 90 percent of complaints about California judges

File photo of a courtroom.
File photo of a courtroom.
Karen Neoh via Flickr

In 2015, a state watchdog agency fielded more than 1,200 complaints about judges across California and 90 percent were dismissed — 1,103 closed after their initial review.

The Commission of Judicial Performance is the agency in charge of disciplining judges, and according to its annual report, 41 judges were disciplined in 2015 due to complaints. None of the disciplinary actions resulted in a judge's removal from office. 

“There’s a large amount of things that get complained about that are not judicial misconduct," Victoria Henley, director of chief counsel for the commission, told KPCC. 

Henley said disagreeing with a judge doesn't automatically make them guilty of misconduct, and most of the complaints they see are related to the decisions the judges hand down. Eighty-eight percent of judge complaints come from litigants, their family members and friends, according to the report. 

"I mean, many people want to have another appeal, or another avenue of appeal, or someone else to direct the judge to enter a different ruling, but that's not the function or the authority of the commission," Henley said. 
In order to pursue disciplinary action, "clear and convincing evidence" needs to be present to prove misconduct, Henley said. That standard falls in between the "preponderance of evidence" standard used in civil cases and the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal cases, she said.

The most common reason judges were disciplined in 2015 was for "bias or appearance of bias, not directed toward a particular class." Following that, 10 judges were disciplined for courtroom demeanor/decorum, eight for on-bench abuse of authority and seven for failing to ensure rights. The most likely punishment for judges who the commission believes exhibited misconducted: an advisory letter. 

Though the data may be a bit startling with 90 percent of the complaints dismissed without an investigation, 2015's report is on-trend with the last 10 years, where between 87 and 92 percent of cases have been dismissed without investigation each year. 

Read the commission's entire report here: