A panel of appellate court justices Monday upheld the right of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to disqualify a judge in a murder case despite finding it engaged in “blanket papering” of the judge following an adverse ruling in the case against the worst mass killer in the county’s history.
Two of the three Fourth District Court of Appeal justices ruled prosecutors have the right to disqualify a judge without providing an explanation, basing their opinion on a state Supreme Court ruling.
The opinion stems from the move to disqualify Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals from the case against Rito Tejada, who is charged with fatally stabbing 51-year-old Frederick Sledge in Huntington Beach.
The majority opinion was written by Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary with Justice Richard Aronson concurring but offering his own opinion. Associate Justice David Thompson dissented.
The mass disqualifications of Goethals began after he began issuing rulings finding misconduct, particularly in the case against Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history, the justices wrote.
Goethals ultimately booted Rackauckas’ office from prosecuting Dekraai, who pleaded guilty, in the death penalty phase of the trial, a ruling that is under appeal.
O’Leary wrote that she was bound by a ruling nearly 40 years old from the state’s high court that found it was not a violation of the separation of powers to allow attorneys to disqualify a judge without explanation. All attorneys have that right once.
However, O’Leary and Aronson said the demands placed on the courts in recent years, particularly as the justice system must reduce overcrowding in the prisons, should lead to a re-evaluation of the right to disqualify judges without explanation.
“Although we question the wisdom of the Solberg holding in light of the complexities of modern court administration, we are bound to follow Supreme Court authority,” O’Leary wrote.
The phenomenon of mass disqualifications of a judge is known by attorneys as “blanket papering,” something the high court should review, O’Leary said.
“For reasons we explain anon, we urge the Supreme Court to revisit the issue of blanket papering to determine whether the impact of an abuse use (of disqualifications) such as demonstrated in this record, can be viewed as inconsequential on a trial court in the performance of its duty to administer justice.”
When prosecutors moved to disqualify Goethals from overseeing the trial of Tejada, Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard King, who assigns trials in the court system, rejected the move, prompting the appeal by the District Attorney’s Office.
King said the blanket papering was affecting the administration of justice because it forced other judges to pick up the slack for Goethals, who was being disqualified from multiple cases.
“Judge Goethals found the District Attorney’s Office repeatedly engaged in misconduct in violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights, and in one of the cases he found the misconduct created a conflict of interest requiring the office’s recusal,” Aronson wrote.
“Respondent court found the campaign to prevent Judge Goethals from hearing long cause murder trials substantially interfered with the court’s ability to administer criminal justice in Orange County and thereby violated the separation of powers doctrine.”
Thompson argued in his dissent that the Solberg ruling did not apply in this case.
“Judge King did not abuse his discretion by denying the district attorney’s motion to disqualify Judge Goethals,” Thompson wrote. “Judge King found their motion ensued from Judge Goehtals’ misconduct rulings against them.
“Judge King concluded their motion violated the separation of powers doctrine and undermined the independence of the judiciary. Judge King’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, his legal conclusion is correct, and his ruling was not arbitrary or capricious.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s Law School, was hired to represent the Superior Court in the appeal. He said he could not comment without first consulting his clients.
Rackauckas’ office issued a news release arguing that most disqualification requests are filed by defense attorneys.
The District Attorney’s Office claimed that a review of the disqualification challenges from Feb. 24, 2014 through Dec. 3, found that, “a total of 847 challenges were filed against superior court judges in the time frame that was under review.
“Of the 847 peremptory challenges, most were filed by criminal defense attorneys, 501, which may consist of public, alternate, associate defenders, and private attorneys, both retained and appointed. In contrast, OCDA prosecutors filed 340. The Anaheim City Attorney filed five and a victim filed one.”
The District Attorney’s Office added, “A total of 40 judges were challenged only by criminal defense attorneys. In contrast, only nine judges were challenged by OCDA prosecutors. It should be noted that Judge Goethals was challenged both by the prosecution and the defense. Even following his ruling recusing the OCDA on People v. Scott Dekraai, prosecutors have consistently litigated their cases in front of Judge Goethals.”
–City News Service
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