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Alameda County Judge D. Ronald Hyde says when he became a judge in 1982, he presided in a rural Livermore “cow court” where everyone knew both of the judges and many court procedures were handled informally. But a judicial watchdog group will try to prove this week that Judge Hyde is more than just informal — he’s unethical. Hyde improperly tried to give his daughter, friends and other acquaintances an upper hand in court, according to the Commission on Judicial Performance. The outcome of this week’s hearings will play a large role in determining the fate of Hyde’s 20-year judicial career. Hyde could be exonerated or he could face punishment as severe as removal from office. Since the CJP announced in June that it had launched an investigation into the judge, a new allegation has been added. According to the latest complaint, Hyde allegedly called a colleague, Judge Hugh Walker, in November 2001 to ask him to “back me up” on a bail ruling after Hyde was disqualified from the case and it was assigned to Walker. When Hyde, 59, took the stand in his own defense Monday, he explained that at the Pleasanton courthouse many people know each other and authority lines are blurred. “We are not like in other courts where we are separated from the public,” said the judge, who kept his hands folded as he spoke. “As soon as we walk into the courthouse, people come up to us to talk about cases.” In his opening statement, defense attorney James Murphy explained that Hyde has been presiding at the Tri-Valley courthouse since before it was moved from Livermore to Pleasanton. He helped to establish the night court and was involved in many local organizations, including the Rotary Club. Many residents and police officers know him by name, Hyde testified. Jack Coyle, the commission’s trial counsel, hammered away at inconsistencies between Hyde’s testimony Monday and documents he and his lawyer have written and submitted over the past year to the CJP in his defense. On the stand, Hyde attempted to clarify some of the allegations against him: how he got the DMV records of a motorist who cut him off on the freeway; whether he had met a lawyer’s daughter before he ended her probation; and whether he initiated a tale about how a court worker once engaged in oral sex with a defendant in the courthouse parking lot. When Coyle drew his attention to the discrepancies, Hyde said that either his lawyer had recounted the events incorrectly in briefs or his recollection had changed. “The way that I am telling it to you is the way that I remember it,” said Hyde. One of the allegations against Hyde is that he assigned his daughter’s small claims case to a judge pro tem who was also a fellow Rotary Club member. Hyde testified that he was merely trying to be expedient since it was a last-minute switch. John Harding, who heard the case, was one of a handful of attorneys who lived nearby and could handle the calendar on short notice, Hyde said. Hyde’s daughter, Suzanne Hyde, said in a past interview that she believes her father is ethical. But it’s unlikely that she will testify on her father’s behalf because she recently successfully sued him in small claims court for withholding from her a $1,600 inheritance from her grandmother. As for the new allegation concerning Judge Walker, Hyde testified that he did call the judge from the bench shortly after the case was reassigned. He said he later apologized to Walker and the defense attorney. He explained that the high bail was justified and he was “ticked” that the defendant — whose case involved a large amount of methamphetamine and loaded weapons — was seeking a lower bail. The judge also blamed his conduct on Indocin, a medication that he was taking for gout. “I remember that it was a stressful, high-volume court,” the judge recalled. “It wasn’t really me that got mad. I can’t tell you if the medication was a factor, but it was there.” Three special masters are hearing the testimony, and then the 11-member commission will decide whether to punish the judge. The commission’s decision is independent, but it traditionally relies heavily on what the special masters conclude in their “findings of fact.” On the special masters panel are Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Joseph Biafore, Shasta County Superior Court Judge Bradley Boeckman and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Talmadge Jones. Although such commission hearings are rare, Hyde is the second East Bay judge in the past year to be scrutinized by the CJP. In February, the commission voted to remove Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis from the bench for repeatedly lashing out at jurors, court staff and attorneys. Indeed, many of the players in this week’s hearing are the same. The commissioner’s lead trial counsel, Jack Coyle, handled Van Voorhis’ case. Hyde’s lawyer, James Murphy, also represented Van Voorhis. Like Van Voorhis, Hyde has previously been disciplined for misconduct. Hyde was publicly censured in 1996 for a series of events that included some of the same kinds of misdeeds he is currently charged with — including looking up motorists’ DMV records and making sexually offensive comments. During the hearing, Coyle revealed that Hyde was privately admonished for having an ex parte conversation about a defendant’s probation. The details of that incident were not revealed.

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