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Two divorce cases are keeping retired Alameda County Judge Roderic Duncan on the bench, but at least one of the litigants wishes the judge had bowed out long ago. Another retired judge even suggested Duncan excuse himself from one of the cases because he had become “adversarial,” but neither Duncan nor the two cases seems to be going away soon. All four litigants are pro per; three of the feuding ex-spouses have JDs and the fourth is working on hers. One 3-year-old case involves San Francisco Superior Court Judge James McBride and his ex-wife, Elaine Collins, who now attends Boalt Hall School of Law. The second case, a Siskiyou County divorce of two attorneys, has raged on for eight years. Duncan, who had to get special permission from the state to continue hearing the cases because he is a private judge, said he’s confident he can shepherd the divorces to a close. And, he insists, the charged emotions of the cases don’t get to him, even though some of the anger in the Siskiyou County case is directed his way. “I have no feelings or prejudice [toward] either party,” Duncan said. “I just call the balls and strikes.” But Sharon Brooks, the Mount Shasta family law attorney who has been battling her ex — civil attorney Timothy Stearns — for nearly a decade, says that simply isn’t true. The center of the couple’s dispute is the sale of a co-owned office building. Since both parties are local attorneys, the entire Siskiyou County bench recused itself from the case. The reason for giving Duncan permission to hear her case was to expedite it, Brooks said. Instead, “he is prolonging the case by creating one appealable issue after another,” she said. Since Duncan was appointed to the case in 2001, Brooks has filed a stack of declarations and written letters of complaint to the Administrative Office of the Courts. She accuses Duncan of a laundry list of misdeeds, including bias toward her ex’s parents, who are sureties in the case. She also says Duncan has relationships with other judges, which has influenced his view of her case. For example, Brooks briefly represented Siskiyou County PJ Roger Kosel’s wife when he was divorced. Last year, Brooks asked the Administrative Office of the Courts to investigate her complaints, and the agency told Brooks it had found nothing improper in Duncan’s actions. Brooks isn’t convinced. Duncan himself filed two State Bar complaints about Brooks and wrote two letters to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael McManus — who was hearing an issue tied to the Brooks/Stearns case. In an October letter, Duncan made a “suggestion” about something McManus was deciding. Duncan “is very antagonistic, and he tries to cover it up by saying that I am doing something wrong,” Brooks said. Even retired Glenn County Judge Robert Vonasek, who ruled against a move by Brooks to disqualify Duncan last year, suggested Duncan leave the case. “This court suggests that Judge Duncan may want to reconsider his desire to remain as the trial judge. � The complaint places Judge Duncan in an adversarial position with petitioner. � Judge Duncan may wish to consider whether there is a reason under the Judicial Ethics Canons for him to believe it would further the interests of justice in this case if he were to bow out,” Vonasek wrote. Duncan says Brooks is “on a tear” about him. He said he only wrote the bankruptcy judge because a stay that the judge issued could have held up several pending issues in the divorce case. Duncan said he wrote the letters in hopes of moving the case along. The bankruptcy judge disregarded the letter, Duncan said. Duncan says Kosel, the Siskiyou County presiding judge, appeared before him more than 20 years ago when Kosel was an Alameda County deputy DA. Duncan says he and Kosel have hardly spoken, other than to discuss court scheduling issues. And, the judge said, he made the first State Bar complaint — which alleged Brooks made ex parte communications — because he thought he would be disqualified from the case anyway and therefore wouldn’t be hearing it. Duncan said he tried to withdraw the complaint after he was made the trial judge, but the State Bar had already determined no misconduct had occurred. The second complaint was triggered because he sanctioned Brooks $1,000 for repeatedly requesting emergency hearings, he said, adding that such sanctions require automatic notification of the State Bar. Duncan also ordered a hearing to show cause why Brooks should not be held in contempt for calling him a “rat in the woodpile” in a brief. The brief “did not get to me,” Duncan said, but added that he felt compelled to hold her in contempt. He added that he could have presided over the contempt hearing himself, but chose to have another judge hear the issue. Timothy Stearns said he likes Duncan and believes his ex-wife’s complaints are overblown. “Every judge is an idiot who does not agree with her position,” Stearns said, but he also acknowledged that he had tried to boot an earlier trial judge on the case for cause because he thought the jurist was biased against him. ACCUSTOMED TO CONTROVERSY This is not Duncan’s first brush with controversy. In 1994, a group of family law litigants launched an unsuccessful campaign to recall the Gov. Jerry Brown appointee, but didn’t get enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The recall proponents accused Duncan of being biased against men in custody and men in divorce disputes. Duncan was a judge for 20 years — spending half that time in family court — and retired in 1995. In addition to sitting on assignment, Duncan does private judging for family law and civil matters. Duncan said he, like many other judges, decided not to remain in the assigned judges program after the Judicial Council adopted a 2002 rule that bars judges from both subbing in courtrooms and serving as private neutrals because of conflict-of-interest issues. Many chose to do private judging because it’s more lucrative than sitting by assignment. Duncan, however, requested to stay on the Brooks/Stearns and Collins/McBride cases. The AOC said about 30 retired judges have similar permission from Chief Justice Ronald George to hear court cases. Such permission is made on a case-by-case basis, said Marcia Taylor, managing attorney of the assigned judges program. Duncan said he plans to ride out both cases. His assignment on the Collins/McBride case will end June 30, but it’s possible that he may stay longer. Duncan said he is assigned to the Siskiyou County case until it ends. But why would he want to stay on the case in the teeth of another judge’s suggestion that he leave and such hostility from one of the parties? “Simply because it’s so bizarre in that Siskiyou County is such a small county,” Duncan said. “I feel with my 10 years on the bench in family law � I can close the case.” On Monday, a retired Trinity County judge set a trial date for Brooks’ contempt hearing. Her divorce case could take several more years, as the Third District Court of Appeal is looking at a half-dozen pending issues and Duncan must then act on those rulings. Stearns said he is sometimes astonished by the scope of his own divorce case. “I don’t know if I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records,” he said, “or Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” The McBride/Collins case, while a bit lower key, has plenty of drama of its own. The two have just fired off a round of briefs about disputed expenses that include Irish dance lessons for their children along with costumes and competition expenses that cost thousands of dollars each year. Collins, who is in her third year at Boalt, said she has no complaints about Duncan. “Personally, I like having one judge,” Collins said. “I think having the same judge in family court is a good idea.”

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