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The Commission on Judicial Performance failed to follow its own rules in yanking Bruce Van Voorhis from the bench, according to a last-gasp petition for review his lawyers filed Friday with the state Supreme Court. When a panel of special masters met last June to hear witnesses describe the Contra Costa judge as a mean-spirited bully, a rule on the commission’s books required that at least six of 11 commissioners be present for the testimony. “Rule 134 could not be more clear. The commission members are required to be present during the hearing before the special masters,” James Murphy, Van Voorhis’ lawyer, said Friday. However, none of the commissioners attended the sessions, and instead they relied on transcripts, other documents and oral arguments before voting in February to make Van Voorhis the first California judge to be removed for demeanor alone. “They didn’t follow their own rules,” said Murphy, a partner at Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney. During a rule overhaul in January, Rule 134 was rewritten and no longer requires commissioners to be present at special master hearings. The CJP’s director and chief counsel, Victoria Henley, declined comment specifically on Van Voorhis’ case, but she downplayed the rule change. “The commission members have never been present at hearings before special masters,” Henley said. She said the rule was changed to reflect the commission’s usual practice in such discipline cases. Murphy countered that the outcome of Van Voorhis’ case could have been different if commission members had personally observed the demeanor of witnesses who testified against his client. Rule 134 was adopted in 1996 after careful review by the commission and was probably written to make the process fair, he said. In addition to the due process argument, Murphy’s brief says the commission’s decision was too harsh. Prior judges who have been removed from the court committed crimes and other acts of “moral turpitude” in addition to having a bad attitude, Murphy wrote. Van Voorhis should be punished, he added. But voters, not the state watchdog group, should decide if the Walnut Creek judge deserves to lose his post for demeanor alone, he said. In its opinion, the commission found Van Voorhis had a long history of misconduct, in particular, lashing out at jurors, court staff and attorneys. Last year’s investigation was Van Voorhis’ third run-in with the judicial watchdog group, which privately rapped the judge in 1992 and publicly scolded him in 1994. At the weeklong hearing last June, commission lawyers called a stream of attorneys, court staff and jurors, who testified that they were humiliated during Van Voorhis’ tirades. But several attorneys called by Murphy testified that Van Voorhis was fair and hardworking. The embattled judge’s defenders also speculated that Van Voorhis was targeted because he wasn’t afraid to rule against prosecutors. In September, the three-judge panel that presided over the hearing released a report that concluded some of Van Voorhis’ deeds constituted “willful misconduct.” The 11-member-commission heard a final round of oral arguments from its attorneys and from Van Voorhis’ lawyer in December. The vote to remove him was 8-2, with one commissioner not voting. Rule 134 states that disciplining a judge requires “the affirmative vote of six members of the commission who have considered the record and report of the masters and who were present at any oral hearing as provided in Rule 121″ — in Van Voorhis’ case, the hearing held in June 2002. After further briefing, the state Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case, a process that usually takes about 60 days, Henley said. If the Supreme Court denies review, the commission’s decision to remove Van Voorhis from the bench becomes final.

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