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Contra Costa County Judge Bruce Van Voorhis repeatedly violated ethics rules and has a “serious problem with judicial temperament and self-control,” a panel of special masters wrote in a report released late Friday. “Unfortunately, Judge Van Voorhis allowed his impatience and seeming compulsion to display his judicial authority to embarrass, humiliate or simply humble those who cross him,” said the report. It was signed by Presiding Special Master Thomas Hollenhorst, a Fourth District Court of Appeal justice. Van Voorhis is under scrutiny by the Commission on Judicial Performance for alleged misconduct that includes telling an attorney that he made a ruling merely to see how she would “handle it,” belittling attorneys, court staff and jurors, and telling a public defender of Ecuadorean descent to “lose the accent.” The 63-page “findings of fact and conclusions of law” report will help the commission decide what, if any, punishment Van Voorhis will face. The special masters found that on several occasions Van Voorhis committed willful misconduct. If the commission agrees, it could impose the ultimate punishment — removing the judge from the bench. Van Voorhis’ attorney can make objections to parts of the report and be heard before the commission before a final decision is made. This is not the first time Van Voorhis has been in trouble with the CJP. He was publicly reproved in 1992 for making sarcastic and intimidating comments, according to the report. In 1994 he was privately rapped for issuing and “signing Contra Costa subpoenas for his own dissolution case in Solano County,” the document says. The report did not elaborate. The judge’s attorney, James Murphy of San Francisco’s Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney, said, “There are some factual inaccuracies,” in the report. He declined to comment further because he said he hadn’t finished reading it and he had not yet talked to his client. Specifically, the special masters said the Walnut Creek judge repeatedly violated canons of the California Code of Judicial Ethics requiring that he “enforce high standards of conduct” and act in a way that promotes “public confidence in the integrity and the impartiality of judiciary.” Van Voorhis also often failed to follow mandate 3B(4) — that he “be patient, dignified and courteous.” The special masters found single violations that Van Voorhis appeared to manifest racial bias and that he failed to cooperate with the administration of the court. But they stopped short of finding willful misconduct on the most grave allegation: whether Van Voorhis told a young district attorney that he didn’t rule in her favor to see how she’d handle it. However, they concluded that his comment gave the appearance that he made an arbitrary ruling, which was “prejudicial misconduct.” And in several instances where the judge berated attorneys in court, the masters said the judge’s actions “constitute willful misconduct.” During a weeklong June trial in a Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals courtroom, the charges were aired before the panel. Testifying during the trial were attorneys, jurors, deputies, clerks and Mark Simons, a former Contra Costa County presiding judge and current First District Court of Appeal justice. Many criminal defense lawyers took the stand in defense of the judge. Van Voorhis momentarily became choked with emotion when he took the stand on his own behalf. In the report, the panel of judges carefully recapped some of the heated exchanges between Van Voorhis and attorneys that were captured on court transcripts. In a few instances the justices said they rejected testimony given by Van Voorhis’ defense witnesses — or by the judge himself — that downplayed the incidents. In the incident that involved the public defender’s accent, the masters dismissed the judge’s explanation that he was simply showing concern because some of the attorney’s words could be misunderstood as swear words. “Our own perceptions of Mr. [Esteban] Alvear’s accent compel us to discredit Judge Van Voorhis’ alleged concerns,” the panel wrote. The report was also signed by the other two special masters on the panel, Second District Court of Appeal Justice Kenneth Yegan and Riverside Superior Court Judge J. Thompson Hanks.

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