Legal Ethics

20-Year CA Judge Removed from Bench

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A former prosecutor who was appointed a California state court judge nearly 20 years ago has been removed from the bench for “misconduct” and “gross neglect” of his judicial duties.

Superior Court Judge Robert Spitzer, who sits in Riverside County, was removed from the bench today by the California Commission on Judicial Performance due to “persistent failure” to perform his judicial duties, reports the Los Angeles Times.

“The pattern of misconduct before us involving inexcusable delays, failure to act and gross neglect of court orders demonstrates an unwillingness or inability to perform judicial functions,” the commission says in a written decision (PDF). It also characterized Spitzer’s ex parte conversations with two potential criminal witnesses as “fundamentally at odds with the integrity and restraint expected of the judiciary.”

Earlier this year, the commission charged the judge with eight counts of misconduct, claiming that he, as the Associated Press puts it, “backdated files, failed to make timely decisions, filed false salary affidavits, made improper contact with witnesses in three criminal cases before him and showed bias against the prosecution in a murder case.”

In an earlier proceeding, a judicial panel criticized Spitzer for ex parte communications with witnesses in criminal cases, including a conversation with the mother of a 13-year-old boy who died when the car in which he was a passenger crashed, allegedly with a drunken driver at the wheel, the AP article says. After the jury deadlocked in the driver’s murder trial, Spitzer reportedly told the victim’s mother, a potential witness at retrial, that a manslaughter charge would be appropriate.

However, the panel praised the judge for voluntarily getting therapy “to deal with the bad organizational habits that were jeopardizing some aspects of his job performance.”

The judge’s own attorney, Reginald A. Vitek, conceded that Spitzer was a “horrible, horrible” manager, the AP article continues. “His courtroom is a mess, and that contributed to the fact … that he delayed orders,” said Vitek. However, the lawyer said Spitzer didn’t think he was violating judicial ethics rules when he spoke with people involved in the cases for which he was responsible.

Spitzer had no prior disciplinary history, the commission notes in its decision today. However, “the pattern of willful and prejudicial misconduct and persistent failure to perform judicial duties in this case spanning a period of 10 years overshadows his lack of prior discipline.”

The commission’s decision to remove Spitzer from the bench is subject to review by the California Supreme Court.

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