No justice possible

What will it take to throw Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Peter J. McBrien off the bench?

Last week, the California Commission on Judicial Performance slapped Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Peter J. McBrien on the wrist for destroying an innocent man’s life. True, severe censure is the second highest penalty the commission can assess, and McBrien will surely be shunned at country-club cocktail parties forevermore, presuming he’s even invited to such affairs anymore after infamously butchering a copse of oak trees in the Effie Yeaw Nature Center to improve the view from his home more than a decade ago.

Losing your social status is one thing. Losing your ability to earn a living is quite another. Just ask McBrien’s nemesis, Ulf Carlsson. Here’s the short version of his story, which is still actually quite long. It can’t be helped. All of the facts paraphrased below can be validated by visiting the commission’s Web site at

During Carlsson’s 2006 divorce proceeding, McBrien walked off the bench before Carlsson had presented his case in chief. McBrien ultimately ruled against Carlsson, but the judge’s conspicuous absence before the trial’s end—an event never before recorded in the nation’s legal annals—was immediate grounds for an appeal, which Carlsson ultimately won in a precedent-setting decision.

Here’s where it gets ugly. Shortly after it became apparent Carlsson was going to file an appeal, McBrien requested a portion of the trial transcript from the court clerk without notifying either party’s attorney. That portion of the trial transcript happened to include a fishing expedition during the trial in which McBrien explored the improper filing of a Fair Political Practices Commission form by Carlsson, who at the time worked for the state Department of General Services. The fine for the transgression, according to the FPPC, was $5,000.

But strangely, using capital connections he first made in the 1970s, McBrien delivered the transcript to the Department of General Services, and Carlsson was summarily fired, by individuals the judge was acquainted with, according to the commission. During the interim between the end of the trial and the sacking, the judge also removed Carlsson from his home, even though the litigant had agreed to pay the full price offered in the settlement. After Carlsson was fired and homeless, McBrien removed himself from the case.

“He made sure I was fired and thrown out of the house, and then he recused himself,” Carlsson told this reporter in an exclusive interview.

The commission made no mention of the timing of all this in its final report, concluding that McBrien’s actions were unwillful, despite the fact that during 30 years on the bench, he’d never reached beyond the bounds of his own court to get someone fired. At no point during his testimony before the commission’s three special masters did McBrien evince remorse; if he’d been up for parole, he would’ve been sent back to solitary in a heartbeat.

In fact, assuming McBrien was sworn in by the special masters, he stretched the truth under oath—the commission report concedes this—when he testified only one branch had been cut down during the infamous tree-cutting incident 10 years ago. This directly contradicted McBrien’s own testimony in the affair, in which he escaped a felony conviction and automatic dismissal from the bench by paying $20,000 to bargain the charge down to a misdemeanor.

Clearly, there are two systems of justice in California, one for the ruled, and one for the rulers. If you or I slaughtered a protected sanctuary and got caught, or committed perjury in front of the most distinguished justices in California, we’d be in prison. Until McBrien is removed from the bench, every judge is McBrien. The stain cannot be removed. The commission, perhaps the most useless public entity ever created, conceded this in its final report.

“Judge McBrien’s failure to appreciate the full extent and gravamen of his misconduct indicates an inability to reform which in turn suggests a likelihood of future misconduct.”

Nevertheless, McBrien’s cronies, including several local judges and an anonymous family-law mediator, testified on the judge’s behalf, and the commission saw fit to keep McBrien on the bench. It helps to have friends in both high and low places.

Carlsson has mixed emotions about the commission’s decision.

“I’m disappointed, because it still shows that judges and attorneys cover up for each other,” he said. “But in all truth, I’m happy he got a severe [censure], even though he should have been removed from the bench.”

As Carlsson noted, it’s not over till the fat lady sings. Please forgive him for the cliché; after all, he’s a Swedish national with dual citizenship. But he’s right. As lame as the commission’s decision is—excluding the two members who ruled to throw McBrien off the bench—the final document names names, in the Department of General Services and Sacramento’s family-law system.

“I’m going to take further legal action, and I’m going to make sure it gets national attention,” Carlsson said. “I’m going to show that corruption is alive and well in the USA.”

Carlsson’s coming. I am, too.