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Alameda County Judge Peggy Hora was in a pickle. Her son, Paul Hora, had graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law and landed a job with the Alameda County district attorney. At the time, Judge Hora presided over criminal cases, and her son’s new job had her worried about conflicts of interest. Because other judges had family ties in the courthouse, she knew she didn’t have to step down from the bench. “My particular question was: ‘Do I have to inform every criminal defense attorney who walks in the room that my kid works for the DA’s office?’” Hora said. For guidance, Judge Hora called the ethics hotline of the California Judges Association, which has helped judges sort through such dilemmas since 1950. Nowadays, judges are using the hotline more and more. Between October 2001 and October 2002, the hotline received 400 inquiries from across the state, up from 324 the previous year. And the long-term increase is even more dramatic. Between 1978 and 1982, for example, the hotline received only 28 inquiries. Why the increase in calls? It could be that judges find themselves in quandaries more often these days, or maybe word of the hotline is simply spreading. More likely, though, say lawyers and judges, is that ethical issues are on judges’ minds these days because of high-profile ethical lapses — see Enron and the Catholic church. And since 1999, state judges have undergone special ethics training in order to qualify for insurance intended to cover the costs of discipline proceedings. “I think that signing up with ethical courses puts them more in tune with what’s happening,” said Edward George Jr., a Long Beach solo practitioner. He has represented judges in discipline proceedings since the 1970s and sat on the Commission on Judicial Performance from 1991 to 1995. “I don’t think that there’s any doubt, as a general rule, they’re ethically more conscious [these days],” George said. Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Judith Haller also looks to a broad explanation to explain the uptick in calls. “I think it’s part of the bigger picture societally,” she said. “At every level, we’re looking at those issues.” This year she chairs CJA’s 19-person ethics committee, which operates the hotline and issues opinions on inquiries. “I don’t think it’s any surprise that if we are looking at lapses of ethics in business, churches,” then it shouldn’t be a surprise to see judges turning to their colleagues to make sure their own behavior is on the up and up, Haller added. Of course, in order to do their jobs, judges have to make sure they not only are free from bias and influence but that there isn’t even the appearance of such conflicts. To understand how important that is to judges statewide, look over the 2002 “Judicial Ethics Update,” an annual report put out by the ethics committee that’s a snapshot of the previous year’s hotline inquiries. The section on “conduct outside the courtroom” is twice as long as “conduct inside the courtroom.” Political and charitable activities get entries, too. Items include where judges can wear robes away from the bench, when it’s appropriate for a judge to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at a political fund-raiser (it’s not) and what sorts of letters can go on judicial stationery. The update comes out each spring. Although based on the hotline, the updates are generalized so as not to give away the identities of the judges or their communities. The report is presented as an addendum to retired Los Angeles County Judge David Rothman’s “California Judicial Conduct Handbook,” and each item refers to a canon from the Code of Judicial Ethics. Those two books form the bible of state jurist behavior. “Our job is to give the best advice as to whether or not the conduct in question [violates] the canons of ethics,” Haller said. Hotline advice isn’t just to make everyone feel better; it has esteem outside CJA as well. Haller said that a judge accused of unethical behavior by the Commission on Judicial Performance can use an inquiry to the ethics committee as part of a defense. “I have been told that there has not been a judge disciplined by the commission who has called and gotten an opinion,” she said. “The view is that [the] commission takes opinions of the ethics committee very seriously.” Victoria Henley, director and chief counsel for the Commission on Judicial Performance, agreed that a judge’s seeking advice from the ethics committee can be a mitigating factor during commission proceedings. In fact, if the commission learns that the judge went against such advice, “that could be almost aggravating,” she said. Even so, Henley pointed out that it’s a little odd that a private organization’s opinions have sway in a forum that is otherwise regulated by the state. The judicial code is promulgated by the state Supreme Court, and the commission, of course, is part of state government. However, George, the lawyer who represents judges, said he didn’t see any inconsistency with ethics opinions being released by an organization that doesn’t actually make the rules. He believes the hotline is “an expedient way to solve problems.” As for the upswing in the scrutiny of judges’ ethics, Henley, like George, pointed to the malpractice insurance. Since September 1999, the Administrative Office of the Courts has provided judges with insurance coverage to pay the costs associated with defending against actions by the Commission on Judicial Performance. To qualify for coverage, judges have to undergo ethics education. “That would mean they’ve . . . been going through training, which results in heightened awareness,” Henley said. According to the AOC, virtually all of the state’s approximately 2,100 judicial officers have signed up for the insurance. They are required to take a six-hour, interactive class every three years to maintain the insurance coverage. And that’s on top of the weeklong new-judge orientation, half of which is devoted to ethics and fairness. New judges learn about the hotline during that same orientation. If a judge knows someone on the ethics committee, he or she can contact that person directly. Otherwise, the judge can call CJA and get the names of two or three committee members. Judges can also submit questions via e-mail or U.S. mail. The committee member will try to give the inquiring judge an immediate, tentative opinion and then will run that by the committee vice chair. Eventually, the entire committee will take up the matter and make a final decision on the ethical dilemma. Those decisions are called informal opinions and are used to produce the judicial ethics updates. The committee will not give legal advice and only answers questions from judicial officers and judge candidates. You don’t have to be a member of CJA to use the service. The committee meets six times a year to discuss and vote. It also issues formal opinions, which are usually initiated by a high number of inquiries regarding a similar subject, Haller said. The committee has issued 51 formal opinions since its creation in 1950. No. 52, a paper on judges’ relationships with jurors, is due in a couple of months, Haller said. Hora, who has been an Alameda County judge for 18 years, made the call about her son 10 years ago. Since then, she has called three other times, all on behalf of other judges who had problems but were worried about the hotline’s confidentiality. Haller said only the committee member receiving the call knows the identity of the judge — and when that member leaves the committee, he or she is instructed to destroy all materials related to their work. Other judges also call on behalf of colleagues, but not always because of privacy worries. Contra Costa County Presiding Judge Garrett Grant said judges often come to him with problems. “Why not just call the hotline and get an opinion from them?” Grant responds. If they don’t follow that suggestion, he will call for them. Although he wouldn’t discuss any specific cases, Grant said that as presiding judge he gets questions about speaking engagements, attending political functions, “almost any issue you can think of where someone could be perceived as being biased.” For judges like Alameda County’s Hora, questions of perception come up frequently. The call about her son wasn’t Hora’s first. In her early days on the bench, she was a member of a women’s political group that changed its rules so it would only endorse female candidates. The ethics hotline told her she couldn’t belong if the organization had such discriminatory practices. As for her son, the ethics committee said she didn’t have to inform every defense attorney of the family connection. Committee members didn’t explain but Hora assumed disclosing to every attorney is considered too burdensome to the justice system. She said she didn’t even bother consulting other sources to resolve her dilemma. “That’s what they’re there for,” Hora said. “If anybody ever says anything, you’ve got it covered.”

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