A California judge who initially did not take responsibility for running a red light—despite photos showing that she did—on Monday received a severe public censure by the Commission on Judicial Performance.
The discipline, the most serious that can be imposed short of removal from office, allows Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Ariadne Symons to keep her job on the bench. The commission concluded her actions “reflect an egregious disregard for the dignity of the very court where Judge Symons serves as a judicial officer.”
In a statement released by Symons’ attorney, Kathleen Ewins of Long & Levit, the judge said she accepts the commission’s findings. The disciplinary process, Symons said, “will make me a better judge now and in the future.”
Symons has served on the Santa Cruz bench since 2009.
On May 10, 2016, Symons told several people at her court that she had run a red light in the city of Capitola on her way to work that morning and that she had seen a flash, indicating a camera at the intersection had captured the event, according to a stipulation signed by the judge, her lawyer and commission director Gregory Dresser.
About a month later, Symons’ husband, the registered owner of the car the judge had been driving, received a ticket, which contained instructions on what to do if someone else committed the alleged violation. Symons’ husband filled out a form requesting a trial and denying he was the driver, although he didn’t identify his wife.
“The car is a family car and a number of people, family and friends, drive it,” the judge’s husband wrote. “I looked at the photo attached to the citation. It is rather unflattering and unclear. It could perhaps be any slightly pudgy white guy, but it is not me.”
On July 14, Judge Symons asked a court clerk “in the staff-only area of the courthouse” to deliver her husband’s request for trial to the appropriate court commissioner by interoffice mail. Symons told the clerk that the commissioner would not know the judge’s connection to the paperwork because she and her husband have different surnames. But the commissioner did discover the connection to Symons and alerted the presiding judge.
Symons admitted to then-Presiding Judge Denine Guy that she had driven through the red light but said her husband wanted to challenge the ticket without implicating her.
Guy told Symons that she needed to accept responsibility, and Symons wrote letters advising the Capitola Police Department and the court that she, and not her husband, was driving that day.
Symons did not receive a new citation, and the county sent her husband $489 to refund the bail he originally paid to fight the ticket.
“When a judge does not respect the law or the processes of the court, public respect for the judiciary is seriously undermined,” the Commission on Judicial Performance said in its censure order Monday.
Commissioners also chastised Symons for several other unrelated instances, including making impertinent remarks to litigants in her courtroom and holding improper ex parte communications. The commission noted that Symons had received an advisory letter in 2013 and a private admonishment in 2015 for improper behavior.
In mitigation, commissioners cited letters of support from the judge’s colleagues, including her presiding and assistant presiding judge, and the agency noted her admission to the facts in the case and her previous work as an assistant U.S. attorney and a county prosecutor.
All 10 commissioners who participated in Symons’ case voted for the severe public censure.