California legislature to judicial oversight panel: Judge not lest ye be audited

After more than five decades of unquestioned existence, a state judicial oversight agency will finally be audited.

Members of the California Legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee ordered the inquiry last week into the California Commission on Judicial Performance, which has a slow, lenient track record when it comes to uncovering judicial misconduct.

“This is a huge first step,” said Tamir Sukkary, an adjunct political science professor at American River and Sierra colleges in Sacramento and a member of a coalition that has been calling for stricter oversight of the CJP. “We really had to work for it.”

Just this year, the CJP publicly disciplined Sacramento County Judge Jaime R. Roman for abusing his authority on multiple occasions over several years. But that kind of action is rare.

Of the 1,245 complaints the commission fielded last year, only two resulted in public admonishments. Another 37 judges were privately admonished or received advisory letters. The average length of time to dispose of a complaint was more than three months.

Sukkary is hoping the audit looks into these issues, as well as the panel’s spending habits, strict closed-door policies and general responsiveness to the public. Sukkary worked with an advocacy group called Court Reform LLC that requests more transparency in judicial proceedings, including cameras in the courtroom and electronic document filing.

Sukkary believes the group’s months-long calls for a state audit were swept up by a populist outcry in June, when Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky meted out a lenient sentence to convicted rapist Brock Turner.

“The timing was good for this,” Sukkary said.

Both the First Amendment Coalition and Sacramento branch of the NAACP joined Court Reform LLC’s demand for an audit. Its founder, Joe Sweeney, says he was recently ordered to serve 25 days in jail on a contempt finding by a Contra Costa Superior Court judge whom the CJP has disciplined multiple times, Sukkary said.

“There’s a possibility, at least, that this could be retaliatory,” Sukkary said.