Tuesday, July 26, 2016

People v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - July 25, 2016)

This opinion has been a long time coming.

It may also be one of, if not the, most important opinions of the month.

At issue is whether it's permissible for a district attorney to "blanket paper" a judge that has made adverse rulings against that office -- a practice that may effectively take away the judge's power to hear criminal cases.  Here's how Justice Aronson concisely describes the facts of this particular case:

"Respondent court denied petitioner’s section 170.6 motion because it concluded the motion was part of the Orange County District Attorney’s (district attorney) coordinated campaign to 'blanket paper' Judge Thomas Goethals to prevent him from hearing murder trials in retaliation for Judge Goethals’s rulings in three earlier murder cases. As described more fully in both the lead and dissenting opinions, Judge Goethals found the district attorney’s office repeatedly engaged in misconduct in violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights, and in one of the cases he found the misconduct created a conflict of interest requiring the office’s recusal. Respondent court found the campaign to prevent Judge Goethals from hearing long cause murder trials substantially interfered with the court’s ability to administer criminal justice in Orange County, and thereby violated the separation of powers doctrine."

As informed readers may know, this is not an isolated occurrence.  It doesn't happen to every, or even most, judges.  But it happens to some.  And the possibility of such a practice may also have a chilling effect even on judges who are never papered.  If your ability to hear criminal cases at all -- your area of practice and interest -- depends on the district attorney's favor, your recognition of that reality is something that never goes away.

Now, maybe that's a good thing.  Maybe it "reins you in" and stops you from making crazy rulings.  Or maybe it's a bad -- or even profoundly bad -- thing.  Reasonable minds might differ on the issue.

But, regardless, it's a critical issue.  Super important.

The majority opinion holds, reluctantly, that blanket papering is permitted by controlling California Supreme Court precedent.  The dissenting opinion disagrees.

None of the justices are particularly psyched about the practice.  For reasons they explain at length.

Particular cases and opinions may transform a particular doctrine in the field.  By contrast, the practice at issue here may transform, at least at the margins, the entire field.

Its an especially important opinion.  Worth reading in its entirety.