Orange County Judge Jeff Ferguson

SACRAMENTO—California’s judicial disciplinary agency on Wednesday publicly admonished an Orange County judge over his claim on Facebook that a prosecutor was sleeping with a defense attorney whose cases she was overseeing.

Superior Court Judge Jeff Ferguson made “reckless” allegations—without evidence—against Orange County Deputy District Attorney Karen Schatzle on a Facebook page in April 2016, according to the Commission on Judicial Performance. Schatzle was running for office then against an incumbent judge who Ferguson backed.

Ferguson deleted his comments from the North Orange County Bar Association’s page after Schatzle responded that the CJP “would love to know about your blogging.” During a subsequent investigation, Ferguson offered no facts supporting his allegation, the CJP said. Members of the bar association could access and see the post, but the Facebook page was not widely open to the public.

“The judge’s post was not only potentially injurious to the candidate, but also undermined public respect for the judiciary and the integrity of the electoral process,” the commission said about its vote to admonish Ferguson.

Ferguson’s attorney, Paul Meyer of Costa Mesa, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday. Commissioners said Ferguson acknowledged he was wrong to write the post about Schatzle and “recognized that it fell outside the bounds of professionalism and the decorum expected of bench officer, and apologized for his conduct.”

The commission also chastised Ferguson for failing to disclose he was Facebook “friends” with three defense attorneys who appeared in his courtroom. A 2010 opinion by the California Judges Association advises judges to “unfriend” lawyers with cases before them.

Ferguson said he agreed with the opinion and dropped his online friendship with the lawyers after the CJP contacted him.

The Facebook exchange between Ferguson and Schatzle started when Schatzle wrote that her then-opponent, Orange County Superior Court Judge Scott Steiner, “uses his office for sex and yet so many aren’t concerned, crazy politics!”

Steiner, elected to the bench in 2010, was censured by the CJP in 2014 for having sex in his chambers, once with a former intern and twice with an attorney who practiced in Orange County Superior Court. Both women were former students in classes Steiner taught at Chapman University Fowler School of Law.

Ferguson responded to Schatzle’s post with his own: “Karen Shatzle [sic] has sex with defense lawyer whike [sic] shw [sic] is DA on his cases and nobody cares. Interesting politics.”

Steiner defeated Schatzle in the June 2016 election.

Ferguson told the CJP he made the claims against Ferguson based on “commonly known information.” Asked for proof, Ferguson submitted the declaration of an attorney.

That attorney “admitted having no evidence that Ms. Schatzle and the defense attorney were working on opposite sides of cases while involved in an intimate relationship,” the commission wrote.

 

Cheryl Miller, based in Sacramento, covers the state legislature and emerging industries, including autonomous vehicles and marijuana. Contact her at cmiller@alm.com. On Twitter: @CapitalAccounts