Lawmakers have called for an audit of California’s Commission on Judicial Performance for the first time in the agency’s 56-year history.
The commission, which is responsible for disciplining judges, has drawn the ire of activists who say it protects bad jurists and from bench officers who say it over-penalizes them for minor missteps.
A joint audit committee of the California Legislature authorized the review in a unanimous vote this week. The audit will look at 26 issues, including whether the commission upholds due process when looking into allegations against judges and how investigators determine which complaints to dismiss.
In the past decade, the judicial commission has fielded anywhere from 900 to 1,200 complaints about judges each year. But 90 percent of those cases were closed right away, while more resulted in no discipline even after an investigation.
Only 3.4 percent ended in disciplinary action, and less than a percent led to public censure. None of these decisions were transparent.
Critics have demanded accountability for the judicial commission for years, claiming the agency works in secret and gives biased and inept judges a pass. In Santa Clara County, the criticism has largely centered on family court.
Roberta Fitzpatrick, who attended Wednesday’s hearing in Sacramento, filed a complaint against a Santa Clara County judge for granting custody of her niece to a known abuser.
In 2005, a family court judge sent 14-year-old Alycia Mesiti-Allen to live with her father, Mark Mesiti, despite a documented history of drug abuse and domestic violence. Four years later, cadaver-sniffing dogs found Alycia’s body buried in the backyard of her father’s Modesto home. Mesiti was charged with murdering and raping his daughter.
In 2010, Fitzpatrick filed a complaint with the commission, which closed the case a year later without recourse. A letter announcing the dismissal said the agency found no grounds for disciplinary action. The lack of transparency in how the commission reaches those decisions has become a common frustration.
Scrutiny of the judicial commission intensified this summer after Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky sentenced disgraced Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months for sexual assaulting a woman on campus. In an effort to oust the judge, activists gathered thousands of signatures and filed complaints with the judicial commission. But, as in every case involving a judge, the agency will not disclose how many complaints have been logged against Persky and how many will be investigated.
Assemblywoman Catherine Baker (R-San Ramon), Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) and Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) co-signed the audit authorization with state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara).
“This is about more than one case, one judge, one issue, or one side,” Jackson said in a prepared statement. “This commission has never before been audited in its 56-year history, and the public and the legal community have questions that deserve answers.”
The commission’s chief counsel said the agency welcomes the scrutiny as a chance to prove that it has been a responsible steward of public money, despite huge budget cuts.
“While some take issue with some determinations by the commission, when the Supreme Court has had occasion to pass on commission decisions, the commission's action has been upheld 90 percent of the time,” the commission wrote. “We welcome the opportunity to show that the commission follows the Constitution, the decisions of the Supreme Court and the commission’s own rules ... to protect the public, enforce rigorous standards of judicial conduct, and maintain public confidence in the integrity and independence of the judicial system.”