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The Contra Costa County public defender’s office wants to block Superior Court Judge Cheryl Mills from hearing criminal cases, alleging she has shown a pattern of bias against the defense in several cases. The judge — who has been on the bench for just one year — demonstrates a “systematic bias” against the defense, court papers filed by the PD’s office say. “This is an overall pattern that we are concerned with here,” said Deputy Public Defender D.L. Clark, who filed a 54-page motion in People v. Madison, 4-137619-3. Clark’s boss, Public Defender David Coleman, did not return a call seeking comment. On Tuesday, Mills declined to comment about the challenge. However, in court papers filed Dec. 22, the judge disputed the allegations and wrote that court transcripts show she ruled lawfully and didn’t favor either side. “I am not biased against criminal defendants or defense counsel,” she wrote. Many of the PD’s allegations are sour grapes over her rulings, she argued: “A party’s remedy for what it perceives to be an erroneous ruling or order is by appeal or writ of mandate, not a motion to disqualify.” Clark’s Dec. 10 challenge “for cause” cites 15 incidences in which he believes Mills improperly threatened defense attorneys with contempt, cut off defense attorneys when they cross-examined witnesses, sided with prosecutors on evidentiary rulings and pre-judged defendants. In one instance, Mills allegedly prevented Deputy Public Defender Kim Mayer from asking a prosecution witness certain questions. “When Ms. Mayer � told the court that the preliminary hearing ‘isn’t just about the DA checking off elements, and then we’re done � and we go back to our offices,’ Judge Mills replied: ‘Yes it is.’” In other cases, Clark said Mills wantonly threatens defense counsel with contempt. He said comments such as “You can’t play that game with me,” “I can’t seem to shut you down and get you to focus on the elements,” and “This could border on a contempt issue” show that Mills “unnecessarily impugn[s] defense counsel in front of clients. This conduct violates the [Judicial] Code [of Ethics] and is cause for sanction.” In her Dec. 22 reply, Mills denied that she acted improperly. “This court has not mentioned ‘contempt’ unless the attorney is violating a direct order or ruling. � There is no bias involved in how this court handled � verbal transgressions.” Mills also responded to the claims about the incidence with Deputy PD Mayer. She argued that the PD only supplied a partial, four-page transcript of the hearing in its disqualification motion. The full, 96-page trial transcript shows that Mayer was able to ask the questions, and did so at length, Mills wrote. And during that same hearing, Mills noted, she often sided with Mayer, sustaining many of her objections and repeatedly admonishing a witness to answer Mayer’s questions. The judge also noted that the PD’s motion didn’t mention cases where she ruled in favor of the defense. “Bias is not something that appears when the ruling is adverse to the defense and disappears when the ruling is favorable to the defense,” Mills wrote. Mills was elected in November 2002, after winning a four-way primary and a fall runoff against Walnut Creek Commissioner Joel Golub. During her campaign, Mills argued that her two decades of civil experience would be a good match for the court, which has lost some veteran civil jurists over the past few years. Her campaign included TV ads, which, at the time was unheard of for a county judicial race and which prompted Golub to follow suit. Mills is married to Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Mills. Despite her civil resume, like many new judges she drew a criminal assignment in a branch courthouse. Although she’s been on the bench a year, relations between Mills and public defenders have not improved as Mills has gained more bench experience, Clark said. “It was getting worse, not getting better,” he said. He added that such disqualification motions were rare. But Mills does have her supporters among criminal defense attorneys. “Overall, I think that she does a good job,” said Walnut Creek criminal defense attorney David Larkin. Larkin said that “a faction” in the public defender’s office dislikes Mills, but others like her, he said. “I’ve had personal experiences of when she has stood up to the prosecutor and ruled against them,” said Larkin. “She’s not afraid to follow what she believes is the law.” Blanket challenges are rare in Contra Costa. The last one involved Walnut Creek Judge Bruce Van Voorhis. The Contra Costa County district attorney’s office argued Van Voorhis was biased against female prosecutors and asked to have him blocked from hearing criminal cases. The motion was successful. Van Voorhis was later removed from the bench following a probe by the Commission on Judicial Performance. The CJP also thought Van Voorhis treated attorneys, as well as court staff and jurors, harshly. Contra Costa DA Bob Kochly did not return a call seeking comment on the motion against Mills. The issue has been assigned to Solano County Presiding Judge Peter Foor, but a court date has not been set, Contra Costa County PJ Laurel Brady said Tuesday.

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