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Likening his situation to “witch hunting in Salem” and “Communist hunting by Sen. McCarthy,” Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis defended himself in court papers filed Tuesday. Van Voorhis was responding to a disqualification motion filed this month by Contra Costa District Attorney Gary Yancey, who wants to block Van Voorhis from hearing criminal cases. The motion, among other things, accuses Van Voorhis of bias against the DA’s office, particularly its female prosecutors. The DA’s move comes on the heels of an investigation by the Commission on Judicial Performance, where a September report by a panel of special masters said he violated a series of ethics rules by upbraiding jurors, court staff and attorneys in open court. In his response to the disqualification motion, Van Voorhis denied he was sexist. “The collective declarations of a few female prosecutors does not prove gender bias,” the judge wrote, adding that it’s “coincidence” that most of the allegations have been made by women. On Oct. 17, Yancey’s office filed a “for cause” challenge claiming the judge is biased against the district attorney’s office, berates women prosecutors, and makes bad evidentiary rulings. According to court papers, Yancey instructed senior prosecutor L. Douglas Pipes to gather complaints from his colleagues shortly after the CJP concluded a hearing where the misconduct allegations against Van Voorhis were aired. Pipes said that he wants Van Voorhis disqualified because it could be months before the CJP takes action, if it takes action at all. In recent months, Pipes said, the judge’s behavior has gotten worse and he could retaliate against prosecutors who have testified against him. The district attorney’s motion includes 12 declarations from rank and file prosecutors that detail incidents that weren’t part of the commission inquiry. In his 51-page answer, Van Voorhis carefully rebutted each allegation. He pointed out that the commission investigation is pending, and that he will have an opportunity to appeal its final ruling. The mere fact that his conduct is questioned by the CJP should not be used to disqualify him from hearing cases, the judge argued. Van Voorhis said that he was particularly disturbed that prosecutor Danielle Douglas alleged that he made a ruling to retaliate against her for testifying against him in a June hearing before the CJP. “I am not biased against Ms. Douglas or anyone else for testifying before the Commission on Judicial Performance. I don’t hold a grudge against those who were mistaken or those who told the truth.” Van Voorhis, who was an Alameda County prosecutor for 11 years before he was elected to the bench, said the move to disqualify him was spurred by water cooler opinions about his demeanor. The judge said he asks lots of questions in court and interrupts attorneys to explore issues in cases. But, he added, that doesn’t make him a “second defense attorney” as prosecutors have alleged. “I have occasionally made good-faith objections on my own, guided attorneys and interrupted to achieve fairness,” the judge wrote. Elsewhere in his response, the judge said, “I admit (and regret) that on rare occasions I have been sometimes so bothered by things that have happened within my courtroom that I have been unable to hide my feelings.” In an amicus brief, Van Voorhis’ attorney, James Murphy, argued that the challenge “for cause” doesn’t meet basic legal requirements. The motion has nothing to do with the underlying case of People v. Bobo, 01-117631 or the specific attorneys. Plus, the challenge isn’t timely because it drags up incidents that date back to 1995 and 1996, he wrote. A visiting judge must be assigned to weigh the motion, and a hearing date has not been set, according to Presiding Judge Garrett Grant. Van Voorhis has been reassigned to the Concord branch courthouse in the interim. There, he presides over traffic and small claims cases that don’t involve prosecutors, Grant said. On Dec. 4, the CJP will hear another round of arguments that it will use to decide what, if any, punishment Van Voorhis will face. The judge, who was reprimanded by the CJP in 1992 and 1994, could be removed from the bench.

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