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Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis made a passionate plea Wednesday before the panel which will decide whether he’ll become the first judge in California’s history to lose his gavel for having a bad temper. Appearing for the first time before the Commission on Judicial Performance, which will decide his fate, the judge said, “I apologize for the harm that I have caused,” and acknowledged that some belittling comments he’s made were out of line. But, the judge said later, “I am worried about being misjudged.” Last year the commission launched a formal probe into allegations that the Walnut Creek jurist has flouted state ethics rules. It alleged that Van Voorhis blew up at attorneys, failed to appear impartial, made a ruling because he wanted to see how a rookie prosecutor would “handle it,” abused his authority and failed to heed a presiding judge’s warning about his conduct. Van Voorhis, a 54-year-old former Alameda County prosecutor who was elected in 1986, has been disciplined twice before. He was publicly reproved in 1992 for making sarcastic and intimidating comments and privately rapped in 1994 for issuing subpoenas in his own divorce. Van Voorhis’ attorney and the commission’s prosecutor, who is called an “examiner,” gave a final round of oral arguments at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals building in San Francisco. Ten of the 11 commissioners were present. The embattled judge tried to make the most of that face time and implored the commissioners to “get to know me.” Van Voorhis told the commissioners he had wanted to be a lawyer since he was in the fourth grade and that he had an exemplary record as a prosecutor when he worked for ex-Alameda County DA D. Lowell Jensen, who is now a federal judge. Van Voorhis said that he is an “industrious” judge who rarely calls in sick and has “loved every minute” of his career. Van Voorhis said the hostile exchanges that were captured in court transcripts — such as one where he ordered a prosecutor to admit to a jury that evidence that she wanted to admit “does not mean anything” — were times where he was concerned that ju stice would be compromised. Van Voorhis likened that frustration to the outrage Jesus Christ felt on finding moneychangers in the temple. Van Voorhis adamantly denied that he exhibited racial bias when he told an Ecuadorian public defender to “lose the accent” or that he made an arbitrary ruling. “Don’t believe that I would recklessly disregard my boundaries as a judge to do whatever I believe,” he said. Earlier, the commission’s examiner, Jack Coyle, argued that Van Voorhis is a repeat offender who would never change. “Judge Van Voorhis has done nothing to improve his temperament,” Coyle said, adding that no one has testified that the judge has gotten better. Coyle noted that in June three special masters heard testimony from court staff, attorneys, jurors and the county’s former presiding judge, First District Court of Appeal Justice Mark Simons. That panel determined that Van Voorhis has a “serious problem with judicial temperament and self control.” Removing Van Voorhis from office is the only way to protect the public, Coyle argued. Van Voorhis’ lawyer, James Murphy of San Francisco’s Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney, briefly argued that taking away Van Voorhis’ robe is extreme. “There is no question that he is a passionate judge, but he is a good judge,” Murphy said. In earlier hearings Murphy has argued that Van Voorhis is being targeted by the Contra Costa prosecutor’s office because he rules against them. In October, DA Gary Yancey’s office filed a motion to disqualify Van Voorhis from hearing all criminal cases. In court papers prosecutors allege that the judge picks on female attorneys and has retaliated against one who testified against him at a commission hearing. That motion, to be considered by an out-of-county judge yet to be named, has not been heard. On Wednesday, one judge on the Commission on Judicial Performance — which consists of three judges, two attorneys and five members of the public — said he was puzzled by Van Voorhis’ vehement denials. “Just so I get your drift here,” said Third District Court of Appeal Justice Vance Raye, “is it your position that you, in effect, did nothing wrong?” Van Voorhis answered that he didn’t intentionally to do anything wrong. Commissioner Betty Wyman, a mental health consultant, asked if Van Voorhis had undergone any therapy or anger management. Van Voorhis said that is privileged information. Commissioner Michael Kahn, of San Francisco’s Folger Levin & Kahn, asked Coyle to name a case where a judge had been removed for bad temperament. Coyle said he could not. Later Kahn asked Murphy to name a circumstance when a judge should be disrobed for behavior. “In an unusual circumstance,” Murphy said. “This is not an unusual case.” “You don’t think that Judge Van Voorhis is unusual?” Kahn countered. “Unique, not unusual,” Murphy replied. There is no deadline for the commission to make a decision, but it typically makes rulings within a few months, said Victoria Henley, the commission’s director and chief counsel. After that, the case’s outcome depends on several variables. If Van Voorhis appeals the commission’s ruling, it would take months — possibly until June — for both sides to brief the state Supreme Court and for that court to decide whether to hear the case, Henley said. If it rejects Van Voorhis’ petition, the commission’s decision becomes final. Murphy said that if the commission removes Van Voorhis from the bench, the judge must leave his post within 30 days and must remain off the bench until his appeals are exhausted.

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