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Former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patrick Couwenberg, removed from the bench last year for lying about his academic credentials and his military record, is trying to reclaim his license to practice law. But the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance says the 56-year-old man is going about it the wrong way — a way that allows him to keep his former judge’s salary a while longer — and the CJP has gone to the California Supreme Court to oppose him. Couwenberg’s petition, filed with the supreme court on Nov. 13, makes clear that the ex-judge — who served four years on the bench until leaving in September — isn’t challenging his removal by the CJP, but simply wants to expedite the procedure for getting his law license back. “[Couwenberg] is seeking this honorable court, following review, to refer this matter to the California State Bar Court,” Long Beach solo practitioner Edward George Jr. wrote, “to determine the appropriate degree of discipline in order that [he] may seek reinstatement to practice law.” The CJP responded on Dec. 28, saying that if Couwenberg — a Gov. Wilson appointee who served on L.A. County’s Norwalk bench — wants his license restored, he should petition the court directly for reinstatement rather than use the underlying removal case as a platform for appeal. “The commission believes that its proceedings are concluded, that its decision is final and that the factual findings and legal conclusions underlying its decision should not be disturbed or reopened,” Jack Coyle, a member of the CJP’s Office of Trial Counsel, wrote in court papers. Coyle also raised the fact that Couwenberg’s method for seeking reinstatement would reopen the CJP proceedings and let Couwenberg continue receiving his old salary until a decision is made. “He could be receiving a judicial salary to which he clearly is not entitled,” Coyle wrote. The CJP’s removal order, issued Aug. 15 and effective Sept. 14, followed revelations that Couwenberg had, among several other things, lied about being a Vietnam veteran, receiving a Purple Heart, serving in covert operations for the CIA and earning a master’s degree from California State University, Los Angeles. Couwenberg’s lawyers and doctors said the 1976 graduate of the University of La Verne College of Law in Ontario suffers from a pathological lying condition called pseudologia fantastica, which they tied to his childhood in an Indonesian concentration camp at the end of World War II. George, Couwenberg’s lawyer, said he chose to petition the supreme court because the proper method for seeking reinstatement isn’t clear in light of voters’ 1995 passage of Proposition 190, which granted the CJP the authority to remove, retire or censure a judge. The measure — California Constitution Article VI, Section 18(e) — also strips such judges of their right to practice law, George said, but doesn’t clarify how they should seek reinstatement of their law licenses. “No judge since [Proposition] 190 has been removed by the court, so this is kind of a brand-new procedure,” he added. He told the court that he thought the issue was one of first impression. George said he believed “the easiest thing to do would be to petition the supreme court [justices] and have them refer it to the State Bar Court.” CJP Director Victoria Henley could not be reached for comment, but commission lawyer Coyle said in court papers that Couwenberg chose “an inappropriate procedural vehicle” for reinstatement. “As a result,” he wrote, “the Commission on Judicial Performance, a party with no interest in the issue, is forced to respond; and the State Bar, the real party in interest, has not been provided with the opportunity to respond.” Couwenberg’s lawyer, though, isn’t convinced that the State Bar has jurisdiction, because judges relinquish their bar licenses when they join the bench. Couwenberg’s “not a licensed lawyer in California,” George said, “until he shows he has a right to be reinstated.” State Bar General Counsel Marie Moffat said Jan. 4 that her agency’s records currently list Couwenberg as a judge. “I understand he filed a petition for review,” she said, “and, therefore, his removal from office is not final and until such time it is final, he would remain listed as a judge and as such would not be considered a member of the State Bar. However, we are, of course, monitoring this matter.” Moffat wouldn’t comment on whether Couwenberg’s petition for review is the proper route for reinstatement, but noted that “as the supreme court’s administrative arm, we’d certainly follow any direction provided by the court.” Lawyers seeking reinstatement must prove rehabilitation, moral character, up-to-date skills and exemplary conduct by a preponderance of the evidence. If reinstated, George said, Couwenberg, a former prosecutor who has criminal defense experience, could have a good chance at success because his illness reportedly responds well to psychotherapy. “He wants to do something. He’s relatively young,” George said. “He’s between the rock and the whirlpool right now.” The high court petition is Couwenberg v. Commission on Judicial Performance, S102066.

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