Law and disorder

Wanted: one human being to fill vacancy on the Sacramento Superior Court

To learn more about the McBrien recall, go to

I’ve said it before and I’m gonna keep right on saying it: Sacramento Superior Court Judge Peter “Chainsaw” McBrien is the gift that keeps on giving, so far as this wag is concerned.

The local magistrate first gained public notoriety in 2001, when he ordered a copse of oaks on public parkland chopped down to improve the view of the American River from his home. McBrien paid a $20,000 fine and was publicly admonished by the California Commission on Judicial Performance for the misdemeanor conviction.

That incident concerned private behavior on the family-law judge’s own time. Nowadays, it’s McBrien’s behavior on the bench that’s drawing the commission’s attention. Last month, it launched an inquiry into McBrien’s alleged misconduct in office, charges that stem mainly from Gold River resident Ulf Carlsson’s successful appeal of his divorce case, which the judge originally decided in favor of Carlsson’s ex-wife.

Earlier this month, McBrien responded to the commission via his attorney, James Murphy. As expected, McBrien denies walking out of the courtroom before Carlsson had presented his case, despite the fact that the 3rd District Court of Appeals reversed McBrien’s ruling in the Carlsson case for precisely that reason.

What’s even more amazing is McBrien’s shameless admission that he excerpted a portion of Carlsson’s trial transcript concerning a minor conflict of interest with his state job and sent it to Carlsson’s superiors at the Department of General Services. Carlsson was subsequently fired, losing both his divorce case and a 20-year unblemished career with the state.

Yes, the judge was entirely within his rights to screw Carlsson out of his job for the minor transgression, at least according to state judicial canons. But let’s be honest. Aren’t divorce proceedings difficult enough without having to worry about vindictive judges going off on irrelevant, job-killing fishing trips? Doesn’t justice demand just a little bit more than that?

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Certainly Ulf Carlsson thinks it does. To that effect, he and other self-proclaimed victims of McBrien’s court—an irate mob of more than three dozen individuals—have worked tirelessly to recall the judge. Above and beyond that, they’ve been seeking a write-in candidate to challenge for McBrien’s seat. They’re still trying to get the numbers up for the recall, but last week they qualified their write-in candidate, Elk Grove attorney Matt Smith, for the November ballot.

“I personally came to the belief that he doesn’t belong on the bench anymore,” says Smith of his write-in campaign. He says his wife is a family-law appellate attorney who’s had McBrien’s decisions reversed on more than one occasion. “Judges make errors, but you have to ask, did they make a good-faith attempt to follow the law?” Smith says. “He just does whatever he wants.”

When he read McBrien’s recent reply to the judicial commission—in which he acknowledged no wrongdoing whatsoever—Smith said, “It literally made me sick.”

Like most judges in Sacramento County, McBrien was running unopposed in this year’s race. Now that Smith has qualified for the ballot, voters can choose who should fill Sacramento County Superior Court Office No. 6. To vote for the man one anonymous local attorney calls “an equal opportunity asshole,” fill in the bubble next to McBrien’s name on the ballot. To vote for justice, write Matt Smith in the space provided below McBrien’s.

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“There’s no reason for a judge to ever be rude in court,” Smith says. “They’re behind the bench, they’re wearing the robes, they have all the power.”

Of course, rudeness is in the eye, or ear, of the beholder. Consider the case of Laurie Mendoza, who brought her complaint about a neighbor’s creeping vines to Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster in 2006. Perhaps McMaster thought he was being creative when he issued a tentative ruling against Mendoza in verse:

Defendant planted a creeping vine
That crept and crawled and soon entwined
Itself in plaintiff’s roof, and made a mess
Causing plaintiff to suffer great distress
This lawsuit follows but leaves unsaid
Why plaintiffs didn’t whack the vine instead.

Mendoza says she was humiliated by the poem.

“This was something that was important, that I needed help with, so I turned to our court system,” Mendoza says. “What came out of it? An embarrassing poem that’s totally off the hook.”

Mendoza filed a complaint with the Judicial Performance Commission, which replied that Judge McMaster’s poem, while straining the rules of verse, was entirely within the bounds of legally acceptable judicial behavior.

Big surprise there.