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Born: Aug. 31, 1937Appointed: April 27, 1995, by WilsonPrevious work of note: Deputy AG, 1983-95; senior corp. counsel, Department of Corrections, 1978-83Law degree: Loyola Law School, Los Angeles (1977)Joan Comparet-Cassani is the only member of the Los Angeles Superior Court bench criticized by Amnesty International for using “torture.”And that’s not her only unpleasant distinction. On Jan. 28, a published opinion by respected Second District Court of Appeal Justice Arthur Gilbert likened Comparet-Cassani to the nightmare magistrates in a Kafka novel.So it comes as a surprise to visit the Long Beach courthouse where she sits and discover the judge is not under a cloud.Far from it: She’s currently overseeing the hottest trial in the building, the prosecution of an alleged gang member and parolee, Aaron Hefflin, accused of attempting to murder a patrolman by shooting him in the head.The explanation is that, lurid evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, many of the professionals who are closest to Comparet-Cassani think she is an excellent judge.And they aren’t all tough-on-crime ideologues. “I like her. She’s humorous, even-tempered and so independent that no one who knows her could call her a rubber stamp for either side,” insists Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Warner-Sterkenburg, who has conducted innumerable preliminary hearings before the judge.Not that Comparet-Cassani doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. And to be sure, that would be her right sleeve.She returned to school to earn a law degree at 40 because — she told a reporter back when she was still giving interviews — she was tired of living in an “ivory tower.”After a stint as counsel with the state Department of Corporations, she was a deputy attorney general for 13 years — much of it spent trying to enforce the death penalty against convicted murderers.Once on the bench, she continued to speak out, publishing a 1997 article entitled “Chipping Away at Proposition 115″ that bewailed appellate courts’ diminution of victims’ rights.She’s equally hard-nosed about how she conducts court. Alongside the standard-issue signs in her courtroom that forbid smoking and talking to prisoners are ones she’s had printed up: No chewing gum, infants and newspaper reading.The command she shows on the bench — it goes beyond confidence to something that approaches noblesse oblige — was present from her first day, according to courthouse observers.She was still new on the job when she dismissed a large part of a case that depended on a witness who arrived 35 minutes late. If he’d had an excuse it might have been different, she explained at the time. But “he simply thought that I wouldn’t start on time, and he was wrong.”So it is all that more remarkable to hear Long Beach’s chief public defender say that the judge has never been the subject of blanket affidavits from his office. “Unlike some courtrooms here, we really don’t have a problem with her,” says Michael Concha.Whatever happens during the rest of Comparet-Cassani’s tenure, for the public her defining moment came in 1998. Ronnie Hawkins, an indisputably mouthy defendant who was representing himself against theft charges, ignored repeated warnings from the judge to be quiet.The transcript shows an increasingly angry judge, leading up to the point when she ordered a bailiff to activate a stun belt the defendant was wearing, sending 50,000 volts through his body and setting off international criticism — as well as state and federal investigations.What the transcript doesn’t show is the judge’s personal style: an almost Old World blend of femininity and rank. It is easy to imagine attorneys appearing before her missing the cues and suddenly finding themselves in trouble.“Once it seemed to me that, out of the blue, she was threatening me with contempt,” said Warner-Sterkenburg. But afterwards, the defense lawyer adds, it was easy to see how the misunderstanding developed.Supporters can also apply a miscommunication analysis to the recent appellate opinion in the case of Clarence LaSalle Rose, who appealed his murder conviction on the grounds that he had inadequate counsel.According to Justice Gilbert, Comparet-Cassani ignored an order to hold an evidentiary hearing and instead “skimmed the petition.” What the world outside the Long Beach Courthouse heard was that the judge undermined the administration of justice and fostered disrespect for the law.What the lawyers who appear daily in front of her say is that she would never intentionally deprive anyone of counsel, and the order must not have been clear.

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