Plaintiffs in a lawsuit over San Jose’s secret negotiations with Google are questioning the impartiality of a new judge assigned to the case.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Paul Bernal, who’s set to preside over Monday’s hearing in a suit filed by the First Amendment Coalition and Working Partnerships, is a longtime family friend of Mayor Sam Liccardo.
In 2016, the jurist’s niece Elizabeth Bernal, worked as a council assistant in the mayor’s office. In a Facebook post that year, Liccardo referred to Bernal as “my good friend Judge Paul Bernal.” In 2013, Bernal’s wife, Mary Bernal, donated $250 to support Liccardo’s mayoral campaign. That same year, the Bernal family attended Liccardo’s wedding.
And the whole reason Bernal decided to pursue a career in law? Because the mayor’s dad pretty much talked him into it.
According to a 2004 profile on Law.com, the judge “considered journalism but decided to pursue law—in part because a family friend and lawyer, Salvador Liccardo, let him read legal briefs during vacations.”
Bernal, an eighth-generation Bay Area resident, graduated in 1987 from the Santa Clara University School of Law before going on to work for the firm Littler Mendelson in San Jose as an employment law specialist through 1989. He spent the next 11 years as a prosecutor for the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office—where Liccardo would later work for a few years before his election to the City Council in 2006. In 2000, Gov. Gray Davis appointed Bernal to a vacant seat on the bench.
Liccardo declined to discuss the matter. Santa Clara County court spokesman Benjamin Rada said Bernal would be unavailable for comment.
“Judges are bound by the Canons of the California Code of Judicial Ethics, and cannot comment on any proceeding pending before any court,” he said. “Trial assignments are made from the weekly master trial calendar to the trial judges who are available. A judge has the duty to decide any proceeding in which he or she is not disqualified.”
It’s not unusual for judges and attorneys to know each other outside the courtroom, and a jurist’s friendship with a party to a case isn’t necessarily cause for recusal. But the many links between Liccardo and Bernal raise questions about the objectivity of the new judge.
For a case defined by concerns about transparency, sources familiar with the lawsuit say the apparent conflicts are especially troubling.
The lawsuit filed last fall by First Amendment Coalition and Working Partnerships accuses several San Jose officials of signing non-disclosure agreements with Google without the legal authority to do so.
Nearly 20 city official signed agreements with Google in 2017 in regards to plans for its downtown mega-campus. The case also alleges that the city refused to hand over all responsive documents to California Public Records Act requests and cited legally dubious exemptions in denying the information.
David Snyder, the executive director for the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, says that Liccardo is a central part of the lawsuit.
“As far as I know, we have zero or at least very little of communications for Sam Liccardo and I find it very difficult to believe that there are no text messages,” Snyder said. “In order to find out what happened behind closed door, the people of San Jose must have access to what Google was saying to Sam Liccardo.”
And with Liccardo and his family having so many connections to Bernal, Snyder said it “suggests objectivity may be a problem.”
Court records show that the case has been passed off to a few different judges over the past several months, getting handed off a couple times between Mary Arand and Helen Williams before Bernal took it over this week.
The plaintiffs were alerted of the judge change on Thursday evening—just days before Monday’s hearing. Snyder said that the change in jurists also sets the lawsuit back.
Now, Bernal wants to ask both parties additional questions instead of getting into the “meat and bones” of the case, Snyder added.
“It’s taken a long time to get to this point and the longer we have to wait for a hearing on the merits, the longer the residents of San Jose have to go without the full public information they’re entitled to about the negotiations,” he said.
“Access delayed is access denied.”