A judge in Northern California is facing nine disciplinary counts for, among other things, allegedly engaging in a pattern of conduct “that would reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment or sexual discrimination.”
The Commission on Judicial Performance has instituted formal proceedings against Superior Court Judge John Laettner, accusing the 12-year veteran of the Contra Costa bench of willful misconduct, conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and improper action. If the charges are sustained, Laettner faces a range of punishment, including possible removal from office.
Four of the nine counts against Laettner stem from comments the judge allegedly made to women in his courtroom about their physical appearance, their tattoos and their ethnicity.
“You often told other female defendants charged with driving under the influence that they were pretty, and that they should not drink and drive or they might get scars,” according to the commission’s report. In 2017, Laettner allegedly told a deputy public defender who is part Japanese-American that he “knew some ‘very beautiful half-Japanese twins in college,’ or words to that effect. [He] also asked her intrusive questions about her racial ancestry, background, and upbringing,” the commission alleged.
The remaining five counts deal with allegedly improper judicial actions by Laettner, from failing to recuse himself from cases with ties to his son, a deputy district attorney, to trying to clear a case backlog by offering a 25 percent reduction in sentences and fines to defendants who pleaded guilty.
Laettner’s attorney, James Murphy of Murphy Pearson Bradley & Feeney, said the judge denies the allegations, some of which date back to events that occurred in 2008. Murphy said the complaints, many of which involve deputy public defenders, stem from an ongoing dispute between the judge and the public defender’s office over the use of cash bail.
“I’ve sent a letter to the public defender saying they need to retain all their records,” Murphy said. “I’m convinced we’ll see a concerted effort to discredit Judge Laettner.”
Contra Costa County Public Defender Robin Lipetzky was out of the office Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Laettner, a former Tulare County prosecutor, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in California’s Northern District between 1989 and 2006. He was then appointed to the Contra Costa bench by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Contra Costa’s judicial system has been plagued by high-profile controversies in recent years. Former District Attorney Mark Peterson resigned in 2017 after pleading no contest to a felony perjury charge tied to state findings that he illegally spent $66,000 in campaign money on person expenses. Peterson was disbarred earlier this year.
In August, the Commission on Judicial Performance censured recently retired Superior Court Judge Bruce Clayton Mills and barred him from holding judicial office again after he was disciplined for misconduct five times in a 17-year period.
Lipetzky’s office is under scrutiny for hiring a clerk who had served 15 years for killing a witness in an Oakland murder case. The former clerk and outreach worker, William Edwards Jr., is now facing murder charges connected to a June 1 shooting in North Richmond.
Lipetzky told the East Bay Times her office hired Edwards on the recommendation of an organization that works with former prisoners.