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Alleged mishandling of a 2003 judicial misconduct complaint against veteran Los Angeles federal judge Manuel L. Real prompted the federal judicial discipline committee to suggest that Congress expand the committee’s authority to review such complaints. In a sharply divided 3-2 opinion, the committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States that reviews misconduct appeals ruled that it had no authority to sanction Real because 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Schroeder failed to appoint a special committee at the local level to investigate and report back to the circuit’s Judicial Council as mandated by law. Without that step by Schroeder, the national discipline committee had no authority to review the appeal by Venice, Calif., lawyer Stephen Yagman, who has tangled with Real over the years but was not a party to the underlying case. Yagman brought the claim under a 1980 law that allows anyone who believes a judge has acted unethically to complain. Real, 81, was accused of improperly seizing control of a bankruptcy case involving Deborah M. Canter, who was on probation in a loan fraud case in Real’s court. Real was accused of issuing orders that prevented Canter’s eviction and allowed her to remain rent-free in a house owned by her estranged husband’s family, according to court records. Canter filed for bankruptcy the day before an eviction action. She personally delivered a letter to Real asking for help to prevent her eviction, and later told her lawyer the letter “worked,” according to court records. Schroeder dismissed the initial complaint in 2003, but the 9th Circuit’s 10-member Judicial Council called for more information from Real and referred the case back to Schroeder. Schroeder again summarily dismissed the complaint in 2004, and this time the Judicial Council approved in a 7-3 vote. Yagman appealed to the five-member Judicial Conference of the United States’ Committee to Review Circuit Council Conduct, which includes 3d Circuit Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders of Dallas and 8th Circuit Judge Pasco Bowman II, who formed the majority. Writing for the majority in an April 28 decision, Sloviter took no position on the merits of the complaint. But she stated that her committee could not act because Schroeder had not convened a special committee to investigate, and the Judicial Council ultimately approved her decision. Additional legislation expanding the scope of the Judicial Conference’s jurisdiction is necessary before it can review Real’s case, she said. In a critical dissent, Judge Ralph K. Winter Jr. of the 2d Circuit said that the statute “clearly requires” in all misconduct proceedings that in all nonfrivolous claims the chief judge shall appoint a special committee to investigate. Winter said Schroeder never appointed the committee but summarily dismissed the complaint against Real as frivolous when the facts would appear to “some, if not most, professional observers” to establish an improper ex parte contact. “There cannot be public confidence in a self-regulatory misconduct procedure that allows those closest to an accused colleague to dismiss a complaint by actions that ignore statutory procedures and simultaneously render the tribunal of final review impotent.” The embarrassing case comes at a bad time for the 9th Circuit, which is frequently the butt of Republican criticism in Congress. On April 27, the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced a bill, HR-5219, to create an independent inspector general for the judiciary with the power to conduct investigations of alleged misconduct.

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