FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Judiciary Committee Report
L.A. COUNTY BAR INVESTIGATION FINDS CRITICISM OF JUDICIAL OFFICERS UNFOUNDED
(As published in the Los Angeles Times January 24, 1997.)
At its meeting of January 22, 1997, the Los Angeles County Bar Association Board of Trustees unanimously approved its Judiciary Committee's report, which concludes that recent reported criticisms of the Los Angeles County Dependency Court by the County Counsel are unwarranted and appear to be intentionally misleading.
After a thorough three month investigation by the County Bar's Judiciary Committee, a number of conclusions were reached on the fourteen cases cited in the County Counsel report, including the following:
- "The Commissioners appropriately carried out their responsibilities as judicial officers, exhibiting care and concern for the safety of the children involved. There was only one ruling in any of the cases which the (Judiciary) Committee felt was erroneous under the law, and that particular ruling neither endangered the child involved nor placed the child at risk, in any physical sense. It was corrected on appeal."
- "The case summaries in the County Counsel Report contained numerous material misstatements and omissions. These misstatements and omissions were sufficiently pervasive and serious as to belie any suggestion that they are a result of mere carelessness or negligence, and thus the case summaries appear to be intended to mislead and inflame the reader."
The County Bar's Judiciary Committee, appointed annually by the County Bar President, was formed to protect the members of the judiciary from unwarranted attack and has an equal responsibility to review serious criticism of judicial performance. This current group of twenty members, most of whom have substantial courtroom experience, were asked to review the matter because of the public criticisms aired through various local media that reflected adversely upon the Dependency Court as a whole and upon certain Commissioners sitting in that Court.
The Los Angeles County Bar Association is the largest local voluntary bar association in the nation with a membership of more than 23,000 attorneys. The County Bar is extensively engaged in advancing the administration of justice, the promotion of its public service projects and furthering the education of its members.
REPORT OF THE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE
LOS ANGELES COUNTY BAR ASSOCIATION
(Dependency Court Investigation)
January 16, 1997
TO: The Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles County Bar Association
On October 8, 1996, Presiding Judge Klausner of the Los Angeles County Superior Court requested of the Los Angeles County Bar Association ("Association"), and its Judiciary Committee ("Committee"), that an investigation be made into certain criticisms of the Dependency Court that had appeared in the press during the month of September, 1996. Because these public criticisms reflected adversely upon the Dependency Court as a whole, and upon certain Commissioners sitting in that Court, the Association authorized an investigation by the Committee.
This is the report of the Committee on the results of its investigation.
DESCRIPTION OF THE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE AND ITS FUNCTION
In its Guidelines For Judiciary Committee, adopted by the Association's Board of Trustees in 1985 and amended in 1994, the Association formally recognizes that it has a duty to protect the members of the judiciary from unwarranted attack and an equal responsibility to review serious criticism of judicial performance. Through its Board of Trustees, the Association has delegated to the Judiciary Committee the authority to review, investigate, and make recommendations to the Board concerning such attacks and criticisms.
The Judiciary Committee is appointed each year by the President of the Association. It currently numbers twenty members, most of whom have substantial courtroom experience, and all of whom have a firm understanding of the standards of conduct and performance expected of a judicial officer.
On August 29, 1996 Asst. County Counsel Larry Cory ("Cory") wrote a letter, marked "Confidential Attorney-Client Communication," to G. Peter Digre ("Digre"), Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS"), enclosing what he described as an "Adverse Decision Report." ("County Counsel Report") The County Counsel Report contained summaries of fourteen dependency cases decided by or pending before certain Dependency Court commissioners; according to the letter, the County Counsel Report provided "examples of rulings by various Judicial Officers which place children at risk."
On August 30, 1996, Cory wrote a second letter to Digre enclosing what he described as "the Adverse Decision Reports without identifying information." This redacted County Counsel Report was obtained by the press, and at least the following newspaper articles appeared:
· On September 8, 1996, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, a story under the heading, "Sending Abused Youths Back Home Draws Fire";
· On September 10, 1996, on the first page of the Metro section of the Los Angeles Times, a story under the heading, "Antonovich Calls for Juvenile Court 'Housecleaning'";
· On September 11, 1996, on the first page of the Metro section of the Los Angeles Times, a story under the heading, "Review of Dependency Cases Vowed";
· On September 12, 1996, on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a story under the heading, "Attorneys Say County Report Is Misleading";
The Dependency Court proceeded to conduct a review of the fourteen cases summarized in the County Counsel Report. That review resulted in a memorandum titled "Misstatements and/or Omissions from County Counsel Adverse Decision Summaries" ("Dependency Court Response"), and listed what the Dependency Court contended were misstatements and/or omissions in each of the fourteen case summaries contained in the County Counsel Report. The Dependency Court Response was released to the press and at least the following articles appeared:
· On September 19, 1996, on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a story under the heading, "Officials Cite Omissions in Juvenile Report"; and,
· On September 19, 1996, on the first page of the Metro Section of the Los Angeles Times, a story under the heading, "Juvenile Court Judges Assail Critical Study"
The article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 8, 1996, makes reference to two bills passed by the legislature, awaiting possible signature by Governor Wilson. The Committee believes that the bills referenced are Senate Bill No. 1516 and Assembly Bill No. 2679, ultimately approved by the Governor on September 30, 1996. [see, 1996 chs. 1084, 1082]
On October 3, 1996, Judge Richard Montes, Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Court, wrote a letter to Judy Johnson, Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar of California, lodging a formal complaint against Cory.
In October, 1996, at least the following newspaper articles appeared:
· On October 21, 1996, on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a story under the heading, "Suit Asks Who Should Speak For Children"; and,
· On October 24, 1996, on the first page of the Metro section of the Los Angeles Times, a story under the heading, "Flaws Cited in County Protection of Children"
The article of October 21, 1996, describes a case between the DCFS and the Dependency Court entitled, In re Shawn B., pending in the Court of Appeal. On December 23, 1996, the Court of Appeal filed its opinion, upholding the Dependency Court rule and policy under consideration. [96 Daily Journal D.A.R. 15467]
The article of October 24, 1996, describes a report of the State Auditor. That report was critical of the DCFS in certain respects; it was not critical of the Dependency Court. Before the report was published, the State Auditor invited comment from the DCFS and the Dependency Court, and in its response the DCFS asserted that the State Auditor inappropriately focused on the activities of the DCFS and not on adverse judicial decisions made by the Dependency Court.
The article of October 24, 1996, points out that the State Auditor's report was ordered by the Legislature, after a hearing held into the death of a minor child, Lance Helms. In testimony given at that hearing, Digre expressed certain views about the death of Lance Helms, and about the functioning of the Dependency Court system, both with respect to that case and in general.
On January 2, 1997, a story appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily Journal under the heading, "Juvenile Court, Typically Quiet, Made Headlines." To the best of the Committee's knowledge, that article contains the first public disclaimer by the DCFS or the county counsel's office of responsibility for the appearance of the County Counsel Report in the press.
THE COMMITTEE'S INVESTIGATION
In late October, 1996, a subcommittee was formed to review the matter in detail.
Initially, each of the fourteen cases summarized in the County Counsel Report was assigned for detailed review by a member of the subcommittee. Each subcommittee member concentrated on matters appearing in the Dependency Court's files in this aspect of the subcommittee's investigation, comparing the comments made in the County Counsel Report and in the Dependency Court Response with what was disclosed by a review of the particular cases themselves. The primary purpose of this review was to determine the extent, if any, to which the County Counsel Report and/or Dependency Court Response was inaccurate and/or misleading in its statements about the fourteen cases involved.
After that investigation and review was completed, on December 4, 1996, the members of the subcommittee met to discuss their respective findings as to the specific cases themselves, and to consider those findings in the context of the press coverage generated by the County Counsel Report. In connection with that meeting the subcommittee reviewed certain additional materials: the articles that had appeared in the press on this subject; the whole of the County Counsel Report in its redacted form, including the two Cory cover letters; the whole of the Dependency Court Response; the letter written by Judge Montes to the State Bar of California; portions of the State Auditor's report; and a videotape of Digre's testimony at the Lance Helms hearing. The subcommittee also discussed: (a) what, if any, general conclusions could be drawn from its findings in connection with the fourteen specific cases; (b) what, if anything, could be inferred about the relationship between the County Counsel Report and the larger issues described in the press coverage (i.e., the Lance Helms hearing, the State Auditor's report, legislation awaiting signature by Governor Wilson, In re Shawn B., etc.); and (c) what, if anything, the Committee should recommend to the Association.
Thereafter a draft of a report was prepared and circulated among members of the subcommittee, discussed by the subcommittee in a series of conference calls, and revised in accordance with those discussions. As ultimately approved by all members of the subcommittee, the report included a number of conclusions and recommendations.
Concurrently with the distribution of the report of the subcommittee, and prior to any meeting of the full Committee, attempts were made to solicit input from the county counsel's office in connection with this investigation. The county counsel's office declined the invitation to participate.
On January 9, 1997, the Committee met to consider the report of the subcommittee. The Committee voted unanimously to adopt the subcommittee's report, including its conclusions and recommendations.
THE COMMITTEE'S CONCLUSIONS
In this matter, the Committee has reached the following conclusions:
1. In their handling of these cases the Commissioners appropriately carried out their responsibilities as judicial officers, exhibiting care and concern for the safety of the children involved. There is only one ruling in any of the cases which the Committee feels was erroneous under the law, and that particular ruling neither endangered the child involved nor placed the child at risk, in any physical sense. It was corrected on appeal.
2. The case summaries in the County Counsel Report contain numerous material misstatements and omissions;
3. These misstatements and omissions are sufficiently pervasive and serious as to belie any suggestion that they are a result of mere carelessness or negligence, and thus the case summaries appear to be intended to mislead and inflame the reader;
4. While the Committee recognizes the vitally important role played in a free society by public scrutiny and responsible criticism of the courts, as a result of the publication in the press of the information contained in these misleading and inaccurate case summaries, the public has necessarily been misled about the handling of cases in the Dependency Court, and public confidence in the Dependency Court and in the judiciary as a whole has been weakened; and,
5. The Committee is extremely concerned that what it regards as an intentionally misleading report has been reported in the press, and the Committee has a number of questions deserving of investigation about the circumstances surrounding both the preparation of the County Counsel Report and the public attention it has received; however, the Committee has no power to compel testimony or the production of other evidence and thus is not in a position to pursue such an investigation itself.
THE COMMITTEE'S RECOMMENDATIONS
The Committee recommends the following:
1. That the Committee's conclusions be adopted by the Association; and,
2. That the Association make this Report public, or otherwise issue a public statement: (a) explaining the role and review undertaken by the Judiciary Committee; (b) correcting the impression left by the public accounts of the cases that are
summarized in the County Counsel Report; (c) supporting the Commissioner's handling of these cases; and (d) affirming the importance in a free society of public scrutiny and responsible criticism of the courts.
DATED: January 16, 1997 Respectfully submitted,
STEVEN W. BACON
Chair, Judiciary Committee