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Most days, Ronald Branson and his wife take turns at the computer in the garage of their San Fernando Valley home, waging war against what they see as a major failing of their country’s court system. Their Web site, www.jail4judges.org, blasts the “arbitrary abuse of the doctrine of judicial immunity.” They shoot off frequent e-mails to rally their troops, like the one last April when Branson praised a Nightline report called “Blaming the Bench.” “We are only now viewing the beginning of a looming showdown in this nation on this subject,” he typed to his audience, which he says numbers at least 1,000 people. For a decade, Branson, a prolific pro per, and Gary Zerman, a Valencia attorney similarly disillusioned with the courts, have sought a way around the immunity that shields judges from suits over their actions on the bench. In the 1990s, they tried to get an initiative on the California ballot that would have created a special grand jury able to criminally indict state judges or to strip them of the immunity defense in civil suits. “Members of the group are not going to police the group,” Zerman says. “You have to have outside independent people to make sure that mechanisms of accountability are there.” But their low-budget operation ran into a roadblock: It took far too many signatures to get anything on the ballot in their populous home state. More recently, though, things have been looking up for the founders of the JAIL movement, which now aims to get a foothold for its Judicial Accountability Initiative Law in any state it can. A feed-machine businessman from South Dakota, where the population is roughly 1/50 of California’s, has enthusiastically taken up their cause, and is sponsoring a JAIL initiative there. In December, a petition drive funded by about $140,000 of William Stegmeier’s money gathered enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Zerman and Branson hope a win in South Dakota will create enough momentum to propel them into other states. That’s also the concern for lawyers and judges who claim a law like JAIL would be both infeasible and philosophically dangerous.
How to judge a judge A constitutional amendment on the November ballot in South Dakota threatens to make state judges there more vulnerable to civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.The Judicial Accountability Initiative Law, which needs a simple majority to pass this fall, would create a special grand jury with the power to criminally indict a judge, or to bar him from using the judicial immunity defense in a civil suit.No one could lodge a criminal accusation with the special jury unless a prosecutor had declined to file charges. And no one could bring a civil accusation without having exhausted state court remedies.After receiving the judge’s response to civil allegations, the 13-member special jury would decide by majority vote whether the judge could claim judicial immunity if the accuser were to sue in civil court. The amendment specifies that immunity should not be allowed for any deliberate violation of the law or the state or federal constitution; fraud or conspiracy; intentional violation of due process; deliberate disregard of material facts; actions without jurisdiction; or the blocking of the lawful conclusion of a case.Judges amassing three adverse immunity decisions or criminal convictions would be kicked off the bench, with their retirement benefits cut by at least half.Critics say the proposal is unworkable, and a threat to judicial independence.“Every time there’s a dissatisfied person there’d be a lawsuit,” says James Heiting, president of the State Bar of California.Larry Mann, a South Dakota political consultant working against the amendment, also argues that it would only serve to shift immunity. “It’s so broadly written that it creates this special grand jury [with] almost unrestrained authority to do almost whatever they want, without any accountability.”But proponents who have long hoped for such a law in California counter that the current checks on judges aren’t enough.“Until a judge has become an open embarrassment to the system, they just won’t be prosecuted,” said Californian Ronald Branson, who drafted the template for the JAIL amendment about 10 years ago.Gary Zerman, a Valencia solo practitioner who’s worked with Branson to promote such initiatives, likewise expresses disappointment in the Commission on Judicial Performance. “The CJP just gives them a public censure and lets them go on like nothing happened.”� Pam Smith

Stegmeier’s South Dakota initiative was a topic of conversation among the state chief justices who gathered last month for a national meeting, said California Chief Justice Ronald George. While he doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over it, he’s not shrugging it off, either. “I don’t know that anything like this has qualified on a state ballot before, so I think that means that it has to be taken seriously.” Branson is already looking ahead, to other initiative-friendly states. He’d like to take on Nevada next, but he’s not ruling other places out. If anyone can come up with a million dollars, he says, JAIL might take another stab at California. “I’m gambling on the idea that if we prevail in South Dakota, we’ll have the attention of so many news sources, and so many money sources will come to us,” he figures. “Success breeds success.” GETTING NOWHERE Branson, who says he’s been a minister since his three-year Army stint in the 1960s, peppers his speech with analogies. The South Dakota initiative is like a wick burning toward a barrel of gunpowder, a wrecking ball that will pick up momentum, the first domino that will topple. When he reminisces about his battles with the courts, he uses the lottery, or a baseball game, to make his points. He has been a pro per, on and off, for about 20 years, typically in suits against the government, and by his count, he’s sued more than half a dozen judges. He says his legal education began in the early 1980s, when his wife, a legal secretary, lost her job with a district attorney’s office and sued to demand a civil service hearing. “I’ve had 14 trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, and not one time have the courts addressed any of the issues I raised in those cases,” Branson says. His cert petitions were all denied. “It would have been an act of insanity for me to continue seeking redress in the judicial system,” he says. “I said, we’ve got to do it some way that doesn’t include government.” When he met Zerman by chance, he found a collaborator. They were both at a speech by then-state Sen. Tom Hayden, when Branson overheard Zerman complaining to the legislator about the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance. Branson remembers following Zerman back to his seat. “I knelt beside him and I said, ‘Hello, I’m Ron Branson, and I understand exactly what you’re talking about here,’” Branson says. “He was getting nowhere as an attorney, I was getting nowhere as a pro se.” Court dockets show that at least 10 cases involving Branson have reached the Second District Court of Appeal, and at least five petitions for review have been denied by the California Supreme Court. The case that really galled Branson, though, was an unlawful-arrest suit against the city of Los Angeles, in which he contends a judge never entered a required default judgment, leaving him no ruling to appeal. Had a law like the South Dakota JAIL amendment existed in California, Branson says, once his appeals were exhausted, he could have complained to a special grand jury that the judge had blocked the lawful conclusion of his case. If the panel decided his complaint wasn’t frivolous, the judge could have been prohibited from claiming judicial immunity if Branson sued. “This is the only thing that’s going to straighten out the politics in this country,” Branson declares, before pausing: “You can tell I get going like a racecar.” While Zerman, a former insurance defense lawyer, isn’t as prone to metaphor, he is equally passionate in his view that judicial immunity from suits is inherently unfair. “The rule of law exists for some and not others,” he says. Zerman’s first real encounter with judicial immunity was a malpractice suit, he says, in which he represented a pair of clients suing two well-known California plaintiff attorneys, the late Melvin Belli of San Francisco, and Santa Monica’s R. Browne Greene. Zerman says he got his head handed to him by a judge at trial, and then got “what I believe was a fraudulent appellate opinion.” He eventually sued the trial judge and appellate panel, but it did no good, he says. He also tried filing an accusation of misconduct against the two plaintiff lawyers with the California Supreme Court, but the justices declined to hear it. Then, in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court declined Zerman’s petition to review the California high court’s decision. “In some of these cases when you get hosed initially and then you start to appeal, the appellate system doesn’t work,” he says. “They can’t admit that the system is that out-of-whack.” CAMPAIGN MANEUVERS After his chance meeting with Branson, Zerman says, “Ron grabbed onto the initiative [idea], and he started drafting.” What the pro per wrote, Zerman and others polished. They’ve been trying to sell their vision ever since, though as salesmen, they can be something of a contrast. Branson boasts of a national JAIL organization with military-esque ranks and titles. He calls himself the National JAIL Commander-in-Chief – similar, he says, to a five-star general. When he appears at particularly formal events as a representative, like a conference he attended in Virginia, he wears a blue suit with five stars on his chest, and five more on the points of his shirt collar. The ranks below him, he explains, go from lieutenant-commander-in-chief (the equivalent of a four-star general), to jailer-in-chiefs (two-star generals) in charge of each state. Zerman, on the other hand, refers to JAIL as a “loosely knit” group, and doesn’t use his title. When he makes a high-profile appearance on JAIL’s behalf, like he did on CNN a couple of months back, he says, “I just wear a business suit.” He estimates that he spends about 30 hours a week working on JAIL efforts from his home office or doing interviews, and suggests his crusade to reform has hurt his civil practice. “I have a few cases, but you pay a price for doing this,” says Zerman, who is acting as a spokesman for the South Dakota campaign. “I tell [potential clients], having me as your attorney may be hazardous to your case, because I’ve got some judges gunning for me.” And for all that, he and Branson weren’t getting very far. That is, until the Internet extended the reach of their message. As best he can recall, William Stegmeier, whose company outside Sioux Falls makes grinders for livestock feed, ran across JAIL’s Web site and was intrigued enough to donate $100 or so. “You know, a lot of patriot organizations, sometimes they link to each other,” Stegmeier said by cell phone from rural South Dakota. “The name jail4judges does elicit curiosity, no doubt about that.” It wasn’t long, Stegmeier added, before he got an e-mail asking him if he wanted to be “jailer-in-chief” for the state. Since then, he’s put up about $140,000 of his own money for a constitutional amendment based on the California JAIL proposal drafted by Branson. Last month, South Dakota’s secretary of state declared that the amendment had the 33,456 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. Apparently going for a toned-down image, Stegmeier says he calls his statewide campaign South Dakota Judicial Accountability. And on the campaign trail, he’s not really using the jail4judges name – “We thought it would be a bit too strong for rural South Dakota” – nor going by his two-star title. Surprisingly, the amendment’s sponsor says he’s never had a problem with any judge, himself. “I really haven’t had much involvement in courts.” He does remember being bothered more than a year ago, though, by a case in Fort Worth, Texas. The judge, he said, wouldn’t allow a defendant to enter the U.S. Constitution as evidence. “Now, how ridiculous is that?” “I’m a patriot. I have three young children,” he added. “I look at this as my civic contribution to the country.” CALL IT YELLOW ALERT Given Branson and Zerman’s roots, some judges in California are keeping tabs on the South Dakota election. “It is such a frightening assault on the bedrock principle of an independent judiciary,” says Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Friedman, president of the California Judges Association. He’s not sure how to evaluate its chances, he adds. “But I know that many judges are – and I would include myself – [concerned] that if it were to succeed there, even though it’s maybe a small and distant state, that could give the movement some momentum elsewhere.” Still, he’s not sure whether any of the amendment’s critics in California will get involved in the campaign against the amendment in South Dakota. “I don’t want to prematurely or unnecessarily build it up in order to knock it down,” Friedman said. “I would rather that it never got off the ground in the first place.” Tom Barnett, the executive director of the South Dakota bar, would have preferred JAIL never left its home turf. “We wish they just would’ve started out in California and stayed there.” He has talked with South Dakota judges in passing about the amendment. “While they were concerned, my recommendation is, you don’t dignify this type of initiative with a response,” he says. “You let Main Street businesses and people involved in civics and [local government] say this is their fight – because the attack is an attack on Civics 101.” Barnett prefers not to go into too many details about the counter-offensive, though. “The last thing I want to do,” Barnett says, “is to have Mr. Branson sit out there in California and read what our campaign plan is.” That will surely disappoint Mr. Branson. “You ever see one of these fish, they have this extension on their lip that looks like a worm?” says Branson. The fish he’s thinking of, he explains, hunts by hiding all but that piece of its body, waiting for another fish gullible enough to try for a nibble. “They just can’t resist themselves, they have to attack us,” Branson says. “And every time they attack us, they’re ruining the element of surprise.”

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