Sacramento State Capitol building on Capitol Way. Credit: Jason Doiy /ALM

The top official at California’s Commission on Judicial Performance told state lawmakers Wednesday he is committed to making the changes recommended in a recent audit that criticized the watchdog agency.

Gregory Dresser, the commission’s director and chief counsel, said staff have already been instructed on how to better track allegations against judges to spot potential patterns of misconduct. A new process will require managers to review and approve investigative strategies, he said, and agency leaders are considering moving the office from San Francisco in a cost-cutting move.

“The intention is for the things that we can do without extra funding to do them by the dates recommended,” Dresser said.

Dresser stopped short, however, of endorsing the auditor’s recommendation to split the commission’s investigative and disciplinary duties. Currently, commissioners decide whether staff should pursue a full investigation of allegations against a judge and then whether and how that judge should be disciplined.

That structure, Auditor Elaine Howle said, exposes commissioners to unproven allegations about a judge that should not factor into their decisions about punishment.

Dresser said state Supreme Court opinions have found the current system does not violate a judge’s right to due process. Any changes to the commission’s process would require an amendment to the state constitution.

“In terms of amending the constitution, the commission believes that’s a policy decision for the Legislature and ultimately the voters to make,” Dresser said. “My plea is that that is something that is done with precision and care.”

Howle’s report, issued in April, was the first state audit of the disciplinary agency in its 59-year history.

Elaine Howle

Howle’s team concluded that commission investigators too often did not take “all reasonable steps” in reviewing allegations leveled against judges.

The agency also failed to look for patterns of misbehavior in judges, the report concluded, noting that the commission received eight similar allegations of on-the-bench misconduct against one judge over a five-year period but did not pursue discipline until one complainant produced a transcript. The judge ultimately agreed “in a confidential settlement” to resign and never seek office again.

Dresser said the agency is working on the purchase of a new case management system that would allow investigators to better track allegations while also permitting the public to file complaints online. Currently, complaints must be sent to the commission by mail, a process Howle called “archaic.”

Lawmakers have not yet endorsed amending the constitution to restructure the commission although they suggested Wednesday that changes will be proposed.

“The Legislature stands ready to do what we need to do to ensure the statutes, the laws and even the constitution are appropriately modified so the CJP can function and build back trust with the public across California,” Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, said.

 

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