A California state commission that reviews the performance of judges has received an increasing number of complaints about California judges in each of the last three years, the commission's annual report states.
The recently released report also showed that the panel, known as the Commission on Judicial Performance, has closed more complaint cases without taking disciplinary action against judges.
Victoria Henley, the commission's director-chief counsel, said the majority of complaints were closed without disciplinary action because they raised challenges to a judge's legal rulings ---- which are outside of the commission's purview ---- instead of allegations of judicial misconduct.
Misconduct by a judge includes yelling, rudeness, profanity, communicating with only one party in a case, making public comments about a case, and out-of-court behavior such as drunken driving or using court stationery for personal reasons, the commission's report stated.
The increase in the number of complaints comes after six straight years in which the commission received fewer complaints about judges, the report stated.
The commission does not track how many complaints come from each county, Henley said. No San Diego County Superior Court judge has been publicly disciplined since 2000, according to the commission's Web site.
San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge John Einhorn said an increase in the number of complaints should not raise concerns about the judiciary.
"It has no significance because the complaints can be about someone dissatisfied with the results who thinks that by contacting me or the commission, they can change the results," Einhorn said.
The commission is not an "appellate body" and cannot reverse rulings, Henley said.
State and local officials said they did not know of any reason why the number of new complaints statewide had begun to rise.
"It's not apparent to me," Henley said.
Bonnie Russell, a Del Mar resident who runs two Web sites that are highly critical of judges in San Diego County and elsewhere, said she was surprised that people were filing more complaints with the commission because so few result in disciplinary action.
Russell said she had filed two or three complaints with the commission to no avail in connection with a custody battle with her ex-husband.
"I have based my complaints on rulings and an abuse of discretion or power, which I thought was clear," Russell said.
For example, in a 2002 letter to the commission, Russell leveled several allegations, including that a judge had been biased against her, kept her from seeing her daughter for two years, and had owned a building that leased office space to attorneys who appeared before him.Russell said she received responses from the commission indicating that it closed its investigations of her complaints because she had not provided additional information.
Henley said the commission cannot address a judge's legal decisions.
"A lot of people don't really understand what the commission is here for," Henley said. "When a litigant shows nothing more than dissatisfaction with a legal ruling, the case is closed."
The 11-member commission, which has a $3.9 million budget, was formed in 1960 "to receive and investigate complaints of judicial misconduct," its annual report stated.
The California state constitution specifies that the commission shall be made up of an appeals court justice and two Superior Court judges appointed by the state Supreme Court; two attorneys with more than 10 years' experience in California appointed by the governor; and six citizens who are not judges or attorneys. The governor, state Senate rules committee and state Assembly speaker each appoint two of the private citizen commissioners.
The commission's actions include an initial review of a complaint, which can be closed without disciplining a judge. The commission also can conduct formal hearings and decide to send a judge an advisory letter disapproving of certain conduct, admonish a judge privately or publicly, censure a judge publicly, or remove a judge from office.
In 2001 Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patrick Couwenberg is removed from the bench for falsely claiming to have fought in Vietnam and worked for the CIA. He also made intentionally false statements to an attorneys group that he attended college on the GI Bill and had a shrapnel wound in his groin. Couwenberg blamed the lies on a mental condition called "pseudologia fantastica.''
Superior Court Judge Joan Weber, the supervising judge of the Superior Court's North County branch, said she has read about the commission's formal hearings in newspapers like others do and that the hearings "seem to be very thoroughly presented."
Complaints against judges are not always resolved within the same year that they are received.
In 2004, the commission received 1,114 new complaints, an increase of 10.2 percent from the number it received in 2003 and the third straight annual increase of more than 9.9 percent.
The number of complaints closed without disciplinary action after an initial review has risen more than 9 percent each of the last three years. The number of complaints closed in 2004 after an initial review rose to 993, an increase of 9.6 percent from 2003. Another 60 complaints were closed without any disciplinary action after a preliminary investigation, down from 62 in 2003.
The commission sent 13 advisory letters to judges, privately admonished eight judges, publicly admonished three and completed the removal of one judge from office in 2004. None of the public discipline involved San Diego County judges.
Russell said she believes no private disciplinary measures should be allowed.
"For a body that was formed to protect the public from bad judges, they have way too many private reprovals," she said.
Weber said she has never received private discipline from the commission and could not say how other judges react to it. Weber said she hoped judges would take note of a private admonishment like any other criticism, but that judges are human and react differently.
The commission's report stated that in 2004, the highest percentage of complaints, 44 percent, involved criminal cases, followed by general civil cases at 19 percent, and family law cases at 16 percent. Those percentages have remained generally consistent since 2001, according to commission reports.
Henley said that criminal cases may account for the highest percentage, in part, because prison inmates sometimes send copies of their petitions for a writ of habeas corpus seeking a new trial to the commission. Henley said the commission treats those petitions as complaints to review.
Where to file a complaint against a California judge, see: http://www.cjp.ca.gov/