Revelations this week that Los Angeles state appellate Justice Jeffrey W. Johnson has been accused of harassing more than a dozen women, including colleagues on the Second District bench, have raised fresh questions about how California’s judicial branch handles sexual misconduct complaints against judges.
The allegations revealed by the Commission on Judicial Performance are not, by themselves, rare. Judges have been accused of harassment, making crude remarks and drunken behavior throughout the history of the commission’s 59-year history of disciplining jurists.
What is unusual in this case is the breadth of the allegations, their target and the ranks of the complainants. Disciplinary charges against appellate justices are rare, both because there are fewer justices than trial court judges and because applicants for the courts of appeal usually have longer resumes to expose potential problems during vetting by a governor.
The commission’s charging documents against Johnson alleged a pattern of misbehavior back to 1999, when he was a federal magistrate, and involving 16 women who are named in the notice of formal proceedings. One of those accusers is Second District Justice Victoria Gerrard Chaney, who told the commissioner that Johnson touched her breast on two occasions. Chaney did not return messages seeking comment.
Retired Justice Thomas Hollenhorst of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, a former judicial ethics instructor, said he could not remember another discipline case involving the scope and duration of the allegations against Johnson.
“There’s not a whole lot of precedent for this kind of thing,” Hollenhorst said. “I was on the appellate bench for 28 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Johnson, through his attorney, Paul S. Meyer of the Law Offices of Paul S. Meyer in Costa Mesa, has denied the charges. The justice “unequivocally passed forensic lie detector testing focused on the most serious allegations,” Meyer said. “Justice Johnson remains respectful of the process of investigation and will rely on facts and documents to provide the truth.” Johnson’s formal response to the commission is due Jan. 24.
So far, the response from the judiciary’s leaders has been muted. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who has said she’s suffered #MeToo experiences in her career, has not commented publicly about the disciplinary charges against Johnson. The Judicial Council’s press office has referred most questions to the Second District.
Second District executives have declined to say specifically when complaints were first made about Johnson, whether he is still working from courthouse chambers, whether the court has a clear path for reporting alleged wrongdoing by justices, and what steps, if any, the court takes to ensure safe working environments.
“The Second Appellate District does not comment on confidential personnel matters or matters pending before the Commission on Judicial Performance,” clerk executive officer Daniel Potter said in an email to The Recorder. “However, the court is committed to providing a work environment free of all forms of harassment and discrimination. The court has policies regarding reporting and resolving harassment complaints and provides sexual harassment prevention training to all justices and staff.”
Johnson continued to hear oral arguments as late as October 2018, and he authored an unpublished opinion issued Jan. 15. It’s unclear if he will hear arguments on Division One’s two-day calendar at the end of the month. Potter declined to say what Johnson’s status is on the bench. The judicial commission can suspend a judge with pay once it starts formal proceedings. It did not suspend Johnson, Gregory Dresser, the commission’s director and chief counsel, said Friday.
Johnson’s path forward is spelled out in the state constitution and the rules governing the Commission on Judicial Performance. He will have a chance to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses at a public hearing—no date has been set yet—overseen by special masters.
The allegations against Johnson follow complaints made against former Sixth District Justice Conrad Rushing in 2017. Rushing, presiding justice of the San Jose appellate court, retired while facing allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination brought by court employees. The Commission on Judicial Performance took no public action against the justice.
Branch leaders, then, would not explain how workplace complaints against a presiding justice should be handled.
“My understanding, at least in this particular case, you have a justice who is the presiding justice, so there’s a complaint against him,” chief administrative officer Martin Hoshino said at the time. “So where do you go with that? And after you get information that suggests something has happened here, where does it go then? It can’t go to the actual person that it was about.”
Judges and justices receive training about preventing workplace harassment, Hollenhorst said. And most jurists see the issue play out in courtroom cases, he said. But he could not recall any guidance about what to do when a fellow judge or justice was accused. The idea of dealing with a justice harassing a colleague seems alien, he said.
Last summer, dozens of employees and 10 justices—including Chaney—of the First and Second districts’ courts of appeal sent a petition to the Judicial Council asking it to review anti-harassment policies in the appellate courts. The petition made no mention of the Rushing complaints. It did ask for “an analysis of incidents when sexual harassment policies have failed” in the courthouse workplace.
“Current policy includes directing employees to report their complaints to supervisors and human resources officers who may then exercise their discretion as to how to respond,” the petition read. “We believe a central system external to each district would allow employees’ complaints to be evaluated by a neutral individual without forcing employees to report directly to their supervisor or supervisor’s colleagues.”
In October, Cantil-Sakauye—not alluding to the petition—announced the creation of a working group for the prevention of discrimination and harassment. That group is chaired by Presiding Justice Brad Hill of the Fifth District Court of Appeal and Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Stacy Boulware Eurie. Boulware Eurie said the panel of jurists, court executives and attorneys has met twice so far and hopes to issue recommendations to the Judicial Council by late summer.