Local judge under investigation

Alleged misconduct of Judge Peter J. McBrien is subject of Judicial Performance Commission inquiry

Judge Peter “Chainsaw” McBrien won’t allow SN&R to photograph him, so we’re forced to run this rather unflattering illustration yet again.

Judge Peter “Chainsaw” McBrien won’t allow SN&R to photograph him, so we’re forced to run this rather unflattering illustration yet again.

Illustration By Christopher Hayes

The California Commission on Judicial Performance has charged controversial Sacramento Superior Court Judge Peter J. McBrien with willful misconduct and a persistent failure to perform his duties, according to documents filed by the commission on Monday, September 29. If the commission confirms the charges, McBrien, who is up for re-election this November, could be removed from the bench.

McBrien first gained local notoriety—and a rebuke from the commission—in 2001, after hiring an arborist to chop down several oak trees that obscured his home’s view of the American River. As SN&R reported at the time, the trees were on public land, and McBrien was charged with felony vandalism. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vandalism and paid a $20,000 fine. The commission publicly reprimanded the judge, finding that his “conduct evidenced disregard of the principles of personal and official conduct embodied in the California Code of Judicial Ethics.”

This time around, it’s McBrien’s conduct in courtroom that’s at issue. The present controversy began in 2006 after the judge walked out of the courtroom during a divorce trial before Gold River resident Ulf Carlsson had presented his entire defense. Carlsson appealed the case and won, a decision that was recently published by the California Supreme Court. He also instigated a recall campaign, and quickly discovered he wasn’t the only litigant unhappy with the treatment meted out in McBrien’s family-law courtroom.

“I was shocked by how many victims there were out there,” said Carlsson, who continues to gather signatures for the recall effort. “I keep thinking, this isn’t about me, it’s about an abusive judge.”

Carlsson’s case, which SN&R first reported last August, is at the top of the commission’s lengthy list of McBrien’s alleged transgressions. “The formal proceedings concern allegations that the judge terminated a trial in a manner that deprived one of due process and a fair trial, improperly threatened that party’s attorney with contempt, displayed embroilment against the party by sending information to the party’s employer without disclosing that he had done so, displayed impatience with that party’s counsel and repeatedly threatened a mistrial,” the commission noted.

The commission also cites two cases in which McBrien allegedly engaged in ex parte communication with litigants without notifying the opposing parties, as required by the judicial code. If the commission determines that the charges are “proved by clear and convincing evidence, it is empowered to remove, censure, publicly admonish or privately discipline the judge.”

To defend himself against the allegations, McBrien has retained James Murphy, of the respected San Francisco civil-litigation firm Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney. “When all the facts come out … they will not find a factual basis to impose discipline,” Murphy said.

McBrien has until October 14 to respond to the commission. If the commission confirms the charges against McBrien, Carlsson plans to retain a “super lawyer” and file a lawsuit in an attempt to recoup financial damages that include the loss of his state job and the depletion of his life’s savings. He’s grateful his parents had the financial wherewithal to help fund his battle against McBrien.

“If it weren’t for Mom and Dad, I’d just be another victim no one ever heard about.”