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Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis became the first judge in California to lose his gavel over his demeanor alone Thursday when the Commission on Judicial Performance announced his ouster. “The commission cannot . . . allow Judge Van Voorhis to continue on the bench,” wrote Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Ris� Jones Pichon for the majority in a 52-page opinion. The 54-year-old judge’s “‘demeanor problem’ is much more than being impolite,” the commission explained in the decision. “It includes such ‘demeanor’ misconduct as loss of judicial temperament, abuse of authority and embroilment.” Two of the 11 commissioners — including one of its three judges — dissented, arguing that removal was too harsh and censure was an appropriate punishment. One commissioner did not participate. Van Voorhis has been fighting to save his job since 2001, when the CJP began to look into allegations that he berated attorneys and humiliated jurors. “So, he is perceived as a jerk,” said the judge’s attorney, James Murphy of San Francisco’s Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney. “Is he subject to removal because he is perceived as a jerk?” Murphy said he plans to petition the California Supreme Court to save his client’s 16-year career. The CJP has conducted three separate investigations of the Walnut Creek judge. In September 1992, the commission publicly scolded him for misconduct for being too harsh to court staff. And in February 1994, Van Voorhis was privately disciplined for issuing subpoenas for his own divorce. A three-judge panel of special masters issued a preliminary report on the latest inquiry in September of last year, concluding there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Van Voorhis committed 11 acts of misconduct, including four instances of “willful misconduct.” The commission agreed. But Murphy said judges who have been removed from the bench in the past were accused of things like criminal conduct, as well as poor demeanor — not just bad behavior. The state high court needs to establish a “bright line” so that judges know what behavior crosses the line, Murphy said. Van Voorhis “didn’t steal any money,” the lawyer said. “He didn’t fix tickets.” That very issue concerned both Third District Court of Appeal Justice Vance Raye and Ramona Ripston, the two commissioners who dissented from the decision. “The fact respondent’s conduct in this case is so much less egregious than the conduct in other cases in which demeanor served as the basis for removal should give us pause,” Raye wrote, citing several cases where demeanor and other factors led to removal. While Raye noted that “Van Voorhis is not a warm and fuzzy individual” and called the judge’s acts “largely indefensible,” he argued that bedside manner is a murky issue. “A judge who accepts a single bribe arguably poses too great a risk to the public and the public confidence in the . . . judiciary to be permitted to continue in office. The same cannot be said of intemperance because intemperance can take so many forms and vary in degree.” He and Ripston, who wrote a brief separate dissent, said Van Voorhis should have been censured instead. One expert said if Van Voorhis is the first judge to lose his jobbecause of his demeanor alone, there’s a good chance that the California Supreme Court will weigh in. “The key factor here is the [commission's] emphasis on a pattern of inappropriate behavior in various forms,” said Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Judith Haller. Haller, who chairs the California Judges Association’s ethics committee, has not read the decision, but is familiar with the Van Voorhis case. “It will be important for [judges] to know what factors will be taken into consideration,” she said. On Thursday morning, news about Van Voorhis’ removal quickly spread throughout Contra Costa County courtrooms. District Attorney Bob Kochly said he was satisfied by the commission’s ruling. “It was regrettable, but it was a justified result,” the DA said. Kochly and his predecessor, now-retired DA Gary Yancey, have maintained that young female prosecutors were the main targets for the judge’s wrath. The DA’s office challenged Van Voorhis for cause, and in November a Monterey County judge sitting on assignment granted the request. Kochly said the ruling barred Van Voorhis from hearing criminal cases. Van Voorhis, his attorney and defense lawyers who testified on behalf of the judge at CJP hearings have argued that the recent CJP inquiry was a power play by the DA. Van Voorhis was a target, in part, they say, because he wasn’t afraid to rule against prosecutors. On Thursday, Murphy said the commission’s decision should give other Contra Costa judges pause. “Kochly could use this to go after any judge,” Murphy said. The DA scoffed at the allegation. “That is ironic given that we are the most conservative county in the state as far as . . . challenges,” Kochly said. “The judges [on the special masters' panel] and the commission said that our attorneys were right,” Kochly said. “He was the one who was inappropriate.” Public Defender David Coleman III called Thursday’s decision “appropriate.” He also praised the commission for listening to attorneys who complained. It’s difficult for public attorneys, who must go before the same judges over and over, to speak out against misconduct, he said. “It’s a sad day for Judge Van Voorhis,” Coleman said. “It’s also a sad thing for a justice system to have a judge with so much of a temperament problem that it visits so much heartbreak on people who are just trying to have their day in court.” Apparently, the commission’s decision was effective immediately. Van Voorhis did not preside over cases on Thursday, said Presiding Judge Laurel Brady. While Brady declined to comment on the commission’s decision, she confirmed that a few cases may have to be retried if Van Voorhis presided over them and a decision was still pending. Since most traffic and small claims cases are resolved quickly, there are probably few such cases, she added. The PJ said she’s working on a way to cover Van Voorhis’ courtroom. The embattled judge had been presiding over traffic and small claims cases in Concord since the DA filed its challenge last year. According to Victoria Henley, the director-chief counsel of the commission, Van Voorhis has 90 days to file a petition with the Supreme Court. It would take both sides several months to brief the court and for the justices to decide whether to take the case. Van Voorhis will draw pay until his appeals are exhausted and retain any retirement benefits that he has earned, Henley said.

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