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Retired San Joaquin County, Calif., Superior Court Judge K. Peter Saiers never thought his off-the-cuff reference to a “kangaroo court” would result in a four-page written scolding from the 3rd District Court of Appeal. But it did. Taking umbrage at what they saw as a slight aimed at their court, three appellate justices found Wednesday that Saiers had violated the judicial canon during a September 2005 plea hearing. According to the ruling, when a prosecutor declined to dismiss a strike count, Saiers responded, “Oh, that’s right. You can’t offend the kangaroos up there in kangaroo court.” In deciding that Saiers had bungled the hearing — and possibly coerced a plea — the court keyed in on his “perjorative [sic]” remark. “It would appear that, in his eyes, this court was a naive, ivory-tower, obstructionist, oblivious to the real-world problems of trial courts faced with staggering caseloads,” wrote Justice Rick Sims. “This view is not accurate.” Reached Wednesday, Saiers said that the whole thing is a misunderstanding, “a big mistake.” “I knew I was pissing them off,” Saiers said, “but I wasn’t referring to them.” Saiers said the target of his kangaroo court comment was the district attorney’s “strike team,” which he said doesn’t believe it needs to provide reasons for its decisions on whether to pursue or drop strike allegations. The appellate opinion reasoned that since Saiers said the kangaroos were “up there,” he could only have meant a reviewing court. “We will give Judge Saiers the benefit of the doubt and assume he was referring to this court, not the Supreme Court,” Sims wrote. Sims’ opinion — in a case that had been presented as a no-issues Wende appeal — included definitions of the term “kangaroo court” taken from Webster’s dictionary — all of them disparaging. “A mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted,” reads one definition. Sims added that, “reading between the lines,” Saiers may have been frustrated by not being able to “dispose of a case in a way that he thought sensible.” Sims noted that the San Joaquin County bench carries a crushing caseload. Sims was joined in People v. Zackery, C051431, by Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland. Justice Harry Hull joined in all but the discussion of the “kangaroo court” remark, though he concurred with the holding that Saiers had violated the judicial canon. That finding can trigger charges by the Commission on Judicial Performance. Tiffs between trial and appellate courts are nothing new, according to James Towery, a former California State Bar president and legal ethics professor at Lincoln Law School in San Jose. “There are many decisions in which trial courts are criticized for intemperate or disrespectful comments about the appellate courts,” Towery said. “There is no question that a trial court judge can be disciplined for such conduct.” But Saiers, an active judge for 30 years who now sits by assignment, didn’t seem too worried after listening to excerpts of the opinion read over the telephone Wednesday. “They wasted a lot of pages,” Saiers said. “If they wanted to know what I meant, they should’ve asked me.”

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