In August of this year, legislators in California, at the request of over a dozen civil rights, court reform, and child protection organizations, unanimously voted to order an audit on the California Commission on Judicial Performance, the organization responsible for investigating complaints and disciplining California judges. This ground breaking audit would be the first in the commission’s 56 year history, which was formed by constitutional amendment in 1960 by Senators Edward J. Regan and Joseph A. Rattigan to protect the public against “incompetency, misconduct or nonperformance of duty on the Bench.”
Partly inspired by the media outcry after Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky’s lenient sentencing of Stanford University student athlete Brock Turner for felony sexual assault against an intoxicated and unconscious 22-year-old woman, court reform advocates Professor Tamir Sukkary and Joe Sweeney of Court Reform, LLC and Family Court Reform California took action. In his investigation into California’s public records, Joe reported that of the thousands of complaints received, less than 2% ever result in ANY disciplinary action, and 80% of those actions are done privately.
Court reform advocates have been working for years to expose the widespread corruption and abuse perpetrated by family courts like those revealed in the popular 2014 documentary Divorce Corp. Hundreds of supporters came out to march on 11 state capitals and Washington, DC this past September with Kash Jackson to demand that Constitutional rights be upheld in family courts. The reality, Joe says, is “when judges know that their oversight agency is going to take every complaint seriously and be held publicly accountable, that is going to result in less misconduct”.
But family court insiders are deeply entrenched in a system that is highly profitable, resistant to reform, and allowed to operate with very little oversight or recourse. Court proceedings and actions that violate the fundamental rights of the litigants, often go unchallenged for fear of retaliation and additional penalties. Two days after the historic audit was announced, Joe Sweeney was incarcerated for 25 days and fined $25,000 for exercising his first amendment rights and posting online about his divorce. Two weeks later, a powerful Georgia legislator and former District Attorney and disgraced Fayette County Superior Court Judge Johnny L. Caldwell, whose disciplinary action for sexual harassment forced him to resign from the bench, moved have Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission stripped from their constitution and abolished.
And now the California Commission on Judicial Performance is pushing back with a lawsuit against California State Auditor Elaine Howle, claiming that the “separation of powers” doctrine forbids her from having access to records of their disciplinary proceedings. But if not subject to audit by the State, then to whom are they accountable? Both the State Bar and Judicial Council have been subjects of similar audits in the past and it’s surely within the rights of citizens to have insight and input into how they’re being governed and how their tax dollars are being spent. This lawsuit simply delays the inevitable. Judges are ultimately accountable to the people whom they serve and they will uphold the rights of the citizens guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States – or be subject to discipline or removal. In America, it is the consent of the governed that authorizes our officials to practice law and execute their duties on our behalf. There is no special protection for them if they are derelict or maleficent in performing their jobs, nor will they be allowed to operate under a veil of secrecy or impunity.
Not in my America, not on my watch.