Appeals judge 'lacked personal boundaries' and 'engaged in unwanted touching,' ethics panel says

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Jeffrey Johnson, a California appeals court justice, engaged in a pattern of misconduct toward women that included inappropriate remarks and unwanted touching, according to a panel of the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance.

The panel said Friday that Johnson committed prejudicial misconduct or acted improperly against two fellow justices, court employees and outside lawyers over a nine-year period, report the San Francisco Chronicle, Law360 and the Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

“The proven allegations establish Justice Johnson lacked personal boundaries; engaged in unwanted touching of several women; attempted to use the prestige of the judicial office to create personal relationships with women; and engaged in ongoing improper touching and sexually related comments toward his colleague, Court of Appeal Justice Victoria Chaney,” the panel concluded in its Jan. 3 findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The commission found that Johnson twice asked Chaney to have an affair and touched Chaney inappropriately over a nine-year period. The inappropriate touching included “intimate hugs with breast touching and patting her buttocks,” the commission said. He also told Chaney that “he wanted to kiss and squeeze her ‘titties’ and made inappropriate comments about her nipples,” according to the commission.

Johnson told another appeals court justice, Elizabeth Grimes, that she had “the cutest little ass in the Second District,” according to the commission.

Justice Jeffrey Johnson. Image from the Judicial Branch of California.

Johnson also made inappropriate remarks to three court research attorneys and two judicial assistants, including one with whom he sought a personal relationship, the commission said. He also brought a young female lawyer to his chambers and tried to use the prestige of his office to create a personal relationship, according to the findings. He also made inappropriate remarks or engaged in unwanted touching with four other female lawyers, the commission said.

The panel said, however, that an examiner had failed to prove all the allegations of misconduct against three women. Among the unproven allegations was that Johnson touched and propositioned a state highway patrol officer.

The panel ruled after hearing from more than 100 witnesses over 17 days. If the findings lead to Johnson’s removal from the bench, he would be the first appellate-level justice to be unseated, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Johnson is a justice on California’s Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. Among his arguments were that much of the alleged misconduct was “within the bounds of tolerated or acceptable conduct in the not-so-distant past.” The panel agreed that public attitudes have changed, but the contention doesn’t apply to judges who have long been held to high standards.

An expert testifying for Johnson said witness memories can be exaggerated or misconstrued, in part because of “social contagion”—the desire to be part of a group dynamic. Johnson also argued that Chaney and many witnesses should not be believed because they did not tell him that his conduct was unwelcome until many years later. The panel rejected those defenses, as well.

Johnson noted that Chaney had recommended him for appointment to the state supreme court in 2014. Chaney had testified that she had mixed feelings about Johnson. She said she was not sure how much he understood about his harassing behavior, and she thought she was the only person he was sexually harassing.

Johnson’s lawyer, Paul Meyer, told Law360 that they disagree with a number of the panel’s findings. “The special masters’ findings about the credibility problems of a number of the accusing witnesses is an important factor for future analysis,” Meyer said. He said he plans to file a brief “providing additional insight to the adverse findings, as well as to the findings in favor of Justice Johnson.”

See also: “State justice accused of sexual harassment that started when he was federal magistrate judge”

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