Scott Evans Dekraai. Photo courtesy of the OCSD
Scott Evans Dekraai. Photo courtesy of the OCSD

A ruling from a panel of Fourth District Court of Appeal justices affirming the right to disqualify judges from cases without explanation was made final Thursday.

The ruling stemmed from allegations of “blanket papering” of Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who dismissed Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ entire office from prosecuting Scott Evans Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history, on the grounds of outrageous governmental misconduct in the use of jailhouse snitches.

The ruling from the panel of justices came down in July, and on Monday the state Supreme Court refused to take an appeal from the Orange County Superior Court, which sought to stop the mass disqualifications of Goethals because it was creating traffic jams in the legal process elsewhere in the court system. With the high court’s refusal to hear an appeal, the appellate court ruling was officially finalized Thursday.

Although the appellate justices sided with Rackauckas on the mass disqualifications, the ruling was a sharply worded one that criticized so- called blanket papering and called on state lawmakers for reform.

Two of three Fourth District Court of Appeal justices ruled July 25 that prosecutors have the right to disqualify judges without explaining why.

There were five cases at the heart of the dispute.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the UC Irvine Law School, represented the court system in the dispute. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Even though the District Attorney won the case, days after it came down in July, prosecutors filed a petition for a rehearing to “correct the record and address misstatements of fact made in a published decision” of the appellate court. That effort failed.

The legal scuffle in part stemmed from a move to disqualify Goethals from the case against Rito Tejeda, who is charged with stabbing 51-year-old Frederick Sledge to death in Huntington Beach.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard King, who assigns trials to various judges, refused to let prosecutors disqualify Goethals from the unrelated cases against Tejeda and four other defendants late last year.

King said the so-called “blanket papering” of Goethals was wreaking havoc with the court system, putting a burden on other judges while Goethals was largely idle.

Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary, joined by Justice Richard Aronson, wrote the majority opinion. Associate Justice David Thompson dissented.

The mass disqualifications of Goethals began after he began issuing rulings finding misconduct, particularly in the case against Dekraai, the justices wrote.

In the past, prosecutors have told City News Service that much of the objection to Goethals has to do with a dispute over allowing evidence in a trial by a previous victim of a defendant in another case.

Legally, it’s a maneuver favored by prosecutors in sex-crime cases in which statute of limitations issues arise because of victims’ reluctance to testify or to timely report crimes. It can also show a pattern in a “he said, she said” case, they say.

Goethals ultimately booted the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting Dekraai, who pleaded guilty, in the penalty phase of the trial.

Goethals’ ruling in that case was affirmed by the appellate court, and the Attorney General’s Office is considering an appeal to the state supreme court.

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 that right.

“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.

“… 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.”

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 Goethals’ 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.”

Rackauckas’ office has argued that most disqualification requests are filed by defense attorneys.

–City News Service 

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