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Born: Jan. 27, 1945 Appointed: April 1997 by Gov. Pete WilsonPrior Judicial Experience: NoneLaw degrees: University of La Verne College of Law, 1973Judge Patrick Couwenberg sits in his chambers and remembers how, when he was a practicing lawyer, he and colleagues would speculate about judges’ private lives.“You’d come to court and, uh-oh, you’d know the judge’d gotten up on the wrong side of the bed,” he recalls. So he promised himself that when he got on the bench he would be inscrutable — a promise that he acknowledges “has taken tremendous effort” in recent weeks.On July 5, the Commission on Judicial Performance put out a statewide press release alleging Couwenberg lied about his education on his job application and that he concocted a swashbuckling war record he imparted to lawyers, staff and even commission investigators. The judge’s formal response has been to deny wrongdoing. Any final determination is far in the future.In the meantime, business as usual in Couwenberg’s courtroom in Norwalk means back-to-back criminal trials, with probation violators and plea bargainers filling in the gaps when juries are out deliberating.It is a smoothly running courtroom, with a minimum of the distractions and clutter that accompany a criminal calendar. The judge tells the deputy district attorney she should have witnesses present for a November trial date; she responds that she’ll subpoena them, but she’s making no promises. The judge says with a hint of sympathy that’s all she can do. It is the abbreviated banter of people who work together closely and have a vested interest in not wasting each other’s effort.What is striking is the uniform response of those who work with the judge when asked about how he does his job. Even his supervisor, Superior Court Judge Dewey Falcone, declares he has never heard anything but praise from prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.“He’s fantastic,” says Deputy District Attorney Laura Laesecke, who was recently transferred downtown after two years in Couwenberg’s court that spanned seven trials. “He will take a chance and make a call if he thinks it’s right, even when it would be easy for him to dodge,” she continues, giving as an example a case in which another judge at a preliminary hearing threw out a charge of constructive possession of a weapon. She appealed to Couwenberg “who agreed with me, even though I couldn’t show him a case on point,” she says. “He reinstated the charge. The jury convicted.”Leonard Levine, a solo defense practitioner, refers to Couwenberg’s courage in the context of an alleged domestic violence case. “We thought the report was falsified, and even the DA recommended dropping it. But given the public feeling, a lot of judges would have gone ahead anyway rather than risk being accused of being soft,” Levine says. “Couwenberg was willing to look at the facts.”The judge says he’s never sanctioned anyone, or even come close to it. He has no trouble supplying correct procedural cites, if a defense attorney is inexperienced and it isn’t during a trial. On the other side, Couwenberg, who was a prosecutor for 11 years, says he sometimes encounters prosecutors who “forget their job is justice and not convicting at any cost.” So he takes them aside for a little talk, “and the problem goes away.”For criticism of the judge, one is forced to look to an appeal court’s reversal that dates from his first venue, where he heard dependency cases. A unanimous panel in In re Brequia Y., 57 Cal.App. 4th 1060, found he had “abused his discretion” when he extended beyond its 18-month statutory limit a probationary period designed to reunify families.“I didn’t know I couldn’t do it,” the judge says. “It was my first week on the bench.”Since then, he has not been reversed even though, in 1998 alone, he presided over 22 murder trials.So, what besides family reunification deadlines has the judge learned in his three years on the bench?He makes a zipping motion with his finger across his lips, and he doesn’t smile when he says, “To keep my mouth shut.”

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