SACRAMENTO — California’s judicial watchdog agency on Tuesday censured two judges for having sex in their chambers, one with his courtroom clerk and the other with two of his former law school students.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Scott Steiner and Kern County Superior Court Judge Cory Woodward exhibited the “height of irresponsible and improper behavior” with their “intimate relationship[s],” the Commission on Judicial Performance said.
“It reflects an utter disrespect for the dignity and decorum of the court and is seriously at odds with a judge’s duty to avoid conduct that tarnishes the esteem of the judicial office in the public’s eye,” the order imposing censure on Steiner said.
But a majority on the commission stopped short of seeking the judges’ ouster, noting that both men were contrite and had cooperated with the CJP’s investigations.
“An appreciation for the impropriety of one’s actions indicates a capacity to reform,” the Steiner order said. “As such, the commission believes this censure adequately protects the public.”
The censures appear to mark new territory for the commission, which has dealt publicly with judges accused of sexual harassment and one who had sex with a criminal defendant but never with jurists having sex in their chambers, said commission director Victoria Henley.
Costa Mesa attorney Paul Meyer represented both judges. In dual statements he reiterated his clients’ apologies.
Steiner was elected to the bench in June 2010 and took his seat in 2011. Woodward was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.
In a stipulated agreement, Steiner admitted to engaging in courthouse sexual activity, once with a former intern and twice with an attorney who practiced in Orange County Superior Court. Both women were former students in classes Steiner taught at Chapman University School of Law. (Steiner is no longer listed in the school’s faculty directory.)
Steiner wrote a letter of recommendation for the former intern when she applied for a position with the Orange County district attorney’s office, where he had worked as a prosecutor before becoming a judge. After she failed to land the job, the judge called two attorneys in the office to ask why his letter hadn’t secured her hiring.
The commission also criticized Steiner for transferring his other lover’s cases to specific judges, a task he should have left to the presiding judge. Commissioners concluded, too, that he committed prejudicial misconduct by not disqualifying himself from cases involving a long-standing friend, attorney Steven Baric. But they found insufficient evidence to prove a quid-pro-quo relationship, suggested by some Southern California media, that involved the trade of sex for help finding a job for the former intern. Local authorities and the attorney general’s office had reviewed the case but did not press charges.
Woodward carried on a nearly 11-month affair with his courtroom clerk, having sex with her in chambers and “in public places,” exchanging personal emails on the court’s computer system and passing sexually charged notes to her, according to his stipulated agreement with the commission. Despite complaints from fellow clerks and the clerk’s husband about the couple’s actions, Woodward repeatedly blocked efforts to have the woman reassigned. It wasn’t until May 2013, after expressing “security concerns” about the clerk’s husband, that Woodward confessed to his superiors.
The commission split in deciding the proper punishment for the judges, with the judges on the commission supporting censure. Three nonjudge members—Anthony Capozzi, Maya Dillard Smith and Sandra Talcott—dissented and said they would have pursued the judges’ removal from office. Commissioner Mary Lou Aranguren supported the Steiner censure but would have sought tougher sanctions against Woodward.
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