No one was more dumbfounded than now-retired Judge Brett Klein when California's Commission on Judicial Performance initiated an investigation into his handling of a class action settlement.
That investigation, begun three weeks ago, concluded Tuesday with the CJP issuing a seven-page order publicly censuring the 20-year veteran, who stepped down from the bench on Dec. 1, and barring him from future judicial assignments.
"I was a bit surprised that after they received my written response in their preliminary investigation that they went ahead with this," the 60-year-old former Los Angeles County Superior Court judge said Tuesday. "In the past, they have mostly seemed interested in corruption and judges who don't get their work done and then falsely sign their pay stub affidavits.
"But now," he added, "they seem to be moving into a different area for them, which is reviewing the correctness of trial judges' rulings, which I find more the function of an appellate court."
The CJP -- in a stipulated decision signed by Chairwoman Judith McConnell, the San Diego-based administrative presiding justice of the Fourth District Court of Appeal -- dinged Klein for failing to be "patient, dignified and courteous" in his handling of a class action against Windsor Fashions Inc., a women's clothing store chain based in the L.A. suburb of Vernon. The plaintiffs claimed the chain violated the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act by asking customers for personal identification information if they paid with credit cards.
The CJP found that Klein, appointed to the bench in 1990 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, had been sarcastic with plaintiffs lawyers during a hearing 13 months ago and abused his authority when he altered the final approval order to make a $2,500 award to lead plaintiff Jacqueline Cohen and $125,000 in fees to plaintiffs lawyer Neil Fineman payable in the form of $10 gift vouchers usable at any Windsor Fashions store in California.
That would have meant Cohen would get 250 gift cards and Fineman, of Yorba Linda, 12,500 of them. On his own motion later, though, Klein ordered reconsideration of the ruling by Judge Susan Bryant-Deason, who had approved the original final order.
The CJP held that Klein's conduct displayed "bias and embroilment," and accused him of "grandstanding" by transmitting a copy of the order to the Metropolitan News-Enterprise , a Los Angeles legal newspaper.
The CJP barred Klein from receiving any "assignments, appointments or references of work from any California state court" and said that Klein -- who the agency publicly admonished in 2004 for similar acts -- had demonstrated a continuing "course of conduct establishing a lack of temperament and ability to perform judicial functions in an even-handed manner."
Reginald Vitek, a partner with San Diego's Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek who represented Klein before the CJP, didn't return a call seeking comment.
Klein said Tuesday he was dealing with difficult lawyers in the class action and started talking "more bluntly" with them when they evaded his questions about the final order.
"My job was to make my ruling the best I could and at the time I thought that was the correct ruling," he said. "So I can't really regret having done my job."
Klein, a 1972 graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Law, said he's still "decompressing," but has reactivated his bar license and might check into doing private judging.
"It's a private enterprise field and there are a lot of lawyers that I've helped settle cases over the years," he said, "and so I assume the ones who thought I was effective and efficient might still hold that view, even though I'm now officially disreputable."