California judge accused of sexual harassment spanning nearly a decade

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Updated: A northern California judge, accused of making inappropriate comments to seven female counsel and at least one court employee in his courtroom for nearly a decade, is being unfairly targeted by the public defender’s office, according to his lawyer.

The Commission on Judicial Performance, the California agency responsible for investigating state court judges, filed a notice on Sept. 14 of formal proceedings against Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge John Laettner regarding allegations he engaged conduct “that would reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment or sexual discrimination.”

The Recorder and the San Francisco Chronicle have coverage.

A hearing will be held and if the agency finds that the accusations are justified, it will seek to reprimand Laettner, a former state and federal prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 2006.

Besides the sexual harassment allegations, the CJP notice alleges that the judge failed to disclose in a timely manner that his son is an attorney with the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office, and previously worked as a law clerk for the agency. Additionally, the notice states that the judge failed to recuse himself on some cases from the agency.

There are nine counts in the notice. When asked about the allegations, James A. Murphy, Laettner’s lawyer, told the ABA Journal that his client will vigorously defend the charges.

“We believe that the evidence will show there was a campaign waged by the PD’s office against judges in Contra Costa County,” Murphy said, adding that last year his client was moved from criminal arrangements to family law.

“I don’t want to reveal my defense strategy, but suffice it to say, we have a wealth of evidence that I believe will affect the believability of the veracity of truthfulness of some of these accusers and their allegations,” Murphy said.

Robin Lipetzky, the Contra Costa County chief public defender, told the ABA Journal on Monday that she did not know about some of the allegations, including the recusal issue, until she read the CJP notice. She denied the allegation that the complaints were part of campaign orchestrated against the judge, noting that among the criminal defense bar, attorneys are usually loathe to publicly complain about judges out of fear that doing so will hurt their clients.

“I do think there’s a general sense with criminal defense attorneys that we should just suck it up, it comes with the territory. You are supposed to be tough, and if you complain it’s some kind of sign of weakness or not cut out for the rough-and-tumble world of criminal defense. That’s been particularly hard on women,” she said.

The complaints regarding Laettner were made to the CJP in the summer of 2017, Lipetzky says.

According to the notice, Laettner allegedly told a deputy public defender in 2016 that she was like a teenage daughter because she always talked and argued with him, but he liked it. When she objected to what he said, he allegedly told her that she should take it as compliment. A few months later he winked at her during a hearing, the filing states, and it also alleges that he told her in chambers he was upset that she made an objection to an ex parte communication he had with a deputy district attorney.

When she attempted to conclude the conversation, the judge reportedly told the deputy public defender that she was a “hard” one and suggested that her parents didn’t spank her enough as a child, the notice states.

Additionally, the judge told another deputy public defender over an approximately three-year span that she resembled Caroline Catz, an actress on the British television program Doc Martin, the notice states. Also, he allegedly said in front of a grand jury several times between 2014 and 2018 that yet another female deputy district attorney was beautiful.

The notice also alleges that the judge repeatedly made comments about the physical appearance of a court reporter assigned to his department and once told her in chambers in approximately 2010 with no attorneys present that she was “hot, or words to that effect.”

He has 20 days to file written answers to the charges.

Adds three new paragraphs with comments from Lipetzky on Sept. 25.

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