Bad judge: In rare move, state commission publicly sanctions Sacramento Superior Court magistrate

Judge Jaime R. Roman violated due process rights and showed bias on multiple occasions, panel finds

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the May 26, 2016, issue.

A Sacramento County judge who once jailed a trial witness for allegedly flipping the bird violated the witness’ due process rights and abused his authority on multiple other occasions, a judicial oversight panel determined last week.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jaime R. Roman received the sanction of public admonishment on May 16 from the California Supreme Court’s Commission on Judicial Performance.

The admonishment is a rare form of discipline for members of the robe. The commission dispensed only two last year—and 86 over two decades.

Ronan is one of only two local magistrates to be censured by the commission since it formed in 1960. The last action happened January 2010, when Judge Peter J. McBrien was publicly disciplined a second time by the panel.

Like his colleague, McBrien was found to have abused his authority and shown bias on multiple occasions. And like his colleague, it took years before his actions caught up to him.

According to the commission’s admonishment, Roman abused his power on four occasions during three cases that he presided over in 2010 and 2012.

According to court transcripts cited by the commission, problems first arose during a felony DUI trial in 2010, when a defense witness identified as Bryan Jones was being sworn in to give testimony and made a hand gesture that the judge interpreted as displaying the middle finger.

“I think we can do without that, Mr. Jones,” the transcript quotes Roman as saying.

Jones then proceeded to testify for the remainder of the day, the commission letter states. After recessing the proceedings, Roman excused the jury, but held Jones back.

“All right. Mr. Jones, I’m having you here because when the clerk administered the oath to you, you characteristically did what we refer to as ‘flipped her off,'” Roman said, according to the transcript.

Subsequently, the judge found Jones in contempt and ordered him jailed for three days.

The witness denied making the gesture, blaming any offending movement on his arthritis. “I didn’t mean to flip. I just put my hand up,” he said, according to the transcript. “Man, I got arthritis.”

Jones also asked what would happen to his daughter, who was present in the courtroom.

“That’s unfortunate,” the judge responded. “You’ll be there [in jail] for three days.”

The commission decided that this action amounted to willful misconduct on the judge’s part, since he incarcerated the witness without giving him the chance to be heard on the matter. The next day when Jones was brought from jail to continue testifying, he requested counsel, which was later appointed even though he was already serving his sentence. Roman also didn’t file any paperwork on the contempt finding, which also violated judicial procedure.

During the same trial, the commission also found that Roman improperly fined Assistant Public Defender Crystal Lamb $150 for missing a court date, without giving her prior notice that he was contemplating such an action, as required under the Code of Judicial Ethics.

The judge’s most recent lapses occurred in 2012, when Roman presided over separate family law cases, both involving attorney Steven Wessels. In both instances, Roman issued rulings against Wessels and his clients that the commission found to violate due process and, in one case, verged on bias.

During an April 2012 divorce proceeding, for instance, Roman ordered Wessels and his client to pay a total of $59,000 in attorney fees and sanctions that the other side never requested, and that Wessels had no chance to rebut. The decision involved sanctions against Wessels that Roman followed up with a report to the State Bar of California.

Wessels formally protested and Roman vacated his decision two months later. But the commission decided the initial ruling “raised an appearance of lack of impartiality and embroilment.”

In a phone interview, Wessels said the commission didn’t go far enough in disciplining Roman or McBrien, whom he accused of abusing their judicial discretion on multiple occasions.

“The consequences of his past choices are still hurting me now,” said Wessels, who has a June 6 family court appearance related to one of the matters.

Messages to the Sacramento Superior Court and Judge Roman’s office weren’t returned, but both he and McBrien remain actively employed.

A judicial phone directory lists Roman as presiding over Department 63, but a receptionist says he works out of Department 61. The directory lists him as presiding over probable cause petitions and hearings, Americans with Disabilities Act cases and warrants.

McBrien still handles family law, emergency protective orders and disability claims.

Meanwhile, complaints of judicial misconduct continue to go up as the number of people to investigate them has gone down, says the commission’s director and chief counsel, Victoria Henley.

The commission considered a total of 1,245 complaints last year—a 75-percent increase over 30 years, according to annual reports.

While the commission’s 11-person membership has been unchanged since 1995, statewide budget cuts in 2003 and 2008 downsized the number of staff working for it, Henley said. “Today, we basically have 20 percent less staff than we did 15 years ago,” she said.

She says the biggest hit has been to investigations, which take more time to resolve. “They all tend to take longer,” Henley said.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget would help a little. It includes the restoration of a staff counselor to conduct investigations and an administrative position to assist investigators.

For now, the vast majority of complaints are dismissed without inquiry.

Of the 1,245 complaints received in 2015, less than 12 percent were actively investigated. In all, more than 95 percent of complaints were resolved without disciplinary action.

Henley says there’s a reason for that.

“The overwhelming thing that people complain about is a legal ruling,” she told SN&R. “The majority of the cases get closed [without action] because there’s nothing more demonstrable than a person was dissatisfied with the ruling.”

Another 460 complaints last year fell outside of the commission’s purview.

Wessels believes the commission doesn’t do enough with the complaints it does investigate. For instance, he says he was never contacted by investigators regarding the allegations against Judge Roman, even though he was a victim of two confirmed instances of misconduct, and says he had information regarding other abuses.

“I’m disappointed the commission didn’t call me as a witness, because there were multiple instances where Judge Roman grossly abused his authority during those two cases—and three other cases I had the misfortune of trying before him,” he said.

For the most part, the commission relies on outside parties to notify it of potentially bad judges, Henley said. It doesn’t go looking for judicial misconduct, though it will sometimes open an investigation based on media reports or a strongly worded decision from an appeals court.

Henley explained that the commission’s response to such misconduct can be delayed because people don’t always complain in a timely manner and the commission generally avoids starting an investigation while the court case that may have inspired it is still pending before the judge.

“We usually hold off until the case is over,” she said.

Henley also confirmed that the commission doesn’t have the resources to obtain copies of critical court documents in the cases it investigates.

“Court transcripts are probably the most expensive of the court documents we need,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “Typically we request them from the judge and do not pay for them.”

“How in the world can they investigate anything without getting copies of case files?” Wessels wondered.

Even so, the commission has censured seven superior court justices this year, including six public admonishments, which rank on the lower end of available disciplinary actions. The harshest form, ordering a judge’s removal from office, occurred late last year, when Tulare County Judge Valeriano Saucedo was stripped of his gavel for a series of actions that amounted to bullying his courtroom clerk into a romantic relationship.

Saucedo’s questionable conduct dated back to 2013.

Wessels isn’t currently practicing law. The state bar website shows that he had his law license suspended in 2015, but reinstated on April 25. At the tail end of a 30-year career in family law, Wessels says he’s considering filing formal charges against Roman and is less fearful of the possible repercussions.

“At this point, I really don’t care if the other judges blackball me. The problem is my clients get hurt,” he said. “Judge Roman is a loose cannon.”