Friday, August 13, 1999

Three Strikes For Law-Breaking Judges Proposed

Backers Predict the Hottest Initiative in History of California

By Peter Blumberg

Daily Journal Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Ronald Branson has picked a lot of fights with judges and lost.

Now the vexed Los Angeles County litigant is going to voters with a proposed ballot initiative aimed at cracking down on a judicial system he regards as out of control.

You've heard of the "Three Strikes You're Out" law? The Judicial Accountability Initiative Law (J.A.I.L.) is Branson's version of "three strikes" for judges, allowing for special nonlawyer tribunals to criminally sanction and permanently remove jurists who repeatedly break the law.

If Branson, a trio of Southern California lawyers and a handful of other sponsors can gather signatures from 670,816 California voters over the next five months -- a feat that eluded him when he carried a similar petition three years ago -- his proposed constitutional amendment could qualify for the November 2000 ballot. The sponsors' first step was to create a Web Site (www.wisr.net/artist/Jail4Judges) that will eventually display some of the horror stories of their experiences with the legal system.

"We believe there are some people out there who are nearly as agitated as us who want something to happen," Branson told the Daily Journal. "This will become the hottest initiative in time that ever happened in the History of California."

Breath Mince

The state's judicial establishment isn't exactly holding its breath.

"We're not going to be lying awake worrying about this," said Constance Dove, executive director of the California Judges Association. "I think the voters have more sense than that."

It was only five years ago that voters strengthened public oversight of judges with Proposition 190, which revamped the Commission on Judicial Performance to give majority control to nonlawyer "public" members and give the disciplinary panel more power to make up its own rules.

Civil Immunity Eliminated

J.A.I.L. would go quite a bit further -- -- further, in fact, than any judicial watchdog agency in the nation.

It would eliminate the broad civil liability immunity that jurists currently enjoy and would establish three statewide 25-member grand juries empowered to investigate, indict and, through a special trial jury, sentence judges for criminal misconduct. The grand jurors could dismiss frivolous complaints, but would also have the authority to remove any judge from office who receives three adverse immunity decisions.

To finance the $17 million that the secretary of state estimates the grand juries would cost, Branson has proposed deducting 2-1/2 percent from the gross annual payroll of all the state's judges, magistrates and commissioners.

Branson said the independence of the grand jurors -- citizens over 30 years old chosen by lottery from the state's voter rolls (excluding all members of the State Bar, public officials and law enforcement personnel) -- will ensure both tougher scrutiny and impartial judging of the judges.

The text of the initiative, however, explicitly instructs the unpaid jurors not to believe everything judges tell them.

"The Jurors shall keep in mind, in making their decisions, that they are entrusted by the People of this State with the duty of restoring a perception of justice and accountability of the judiciary, and are not to be swayed by artful presentation by the judge," it states. "They shall avoid all influence by judicial and government entities."

For Branson, a 53-year-old Baptist minister who has taught himself the law, the objective is to give power back to the people over a bench that has grown arrogant.

Branson's own run-ins with the law -- including 13 cases he has unsuccessfully pursued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- have consumed thousands of hours of his time, but he complains that California's highest elected officials have ignored his calls for reform.

"I've taken so many complaints against judges and all I get is a form letter back," he said.

He is still angry that his false arrest lawsuit against half a dozen Los Angeles police officers stemming from a 1986 alleged burglary was never satisfactorily resolved in the county court system. And he is currently fighting a city of Los Angeles parking ticket in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while fending off a motion that seeks to bar him from the federal courts for filing too many frivolous appeals. (Branson denies liability for the $112,000 in attorney fees and court costs that he says his opponents are trying to recover from him.)

The opposing lawyer in Branson's parking ticket case could not be reached Tuesday, but his secretary seemed unfazed to hear about Branson's J.A.I.L. campaign.

"Oh, he never stops," she said.

Branson's partners in the initiative campaign include Costa Mesa attorney Phillip Putman and Newhall sole practitioner Gary Zerman, both of whom profess such profound disenchantment with the justice system that they specialize in legal malpractice litigation and are ever closer to dropping out of the bar altogether.

Putman, who for 10 years has championed legal reform through the Patriot Movement, does not mince words while recounting his frustration with judges whom he blames for verdicts that have cost him millions. He is now trying to launch a Pro Se University that would teach people how to fight parking tickets, file divorce papers and handle other legal matters without help from lawyers.

"The state courts have gotten so outrageously vindictive, vigilantist and vituperative toward the parties and attorneys," he said. "I'm about ready to resign. I just refuse to go into the courtroom and allow these jackasses to spew their venom at me, which they do all the time."

Zerman, who has practiced for 15 years and has had his own showdowns with judges, said he is troubled that there seem to be few consequences for even the most blatant cases of judicial corruption and misconduct.

"Just look at CJP's 10-year summary of enforcement actions. It's amazing the number of goose eggs there are," he said. "The system is not holding judges accountable."

But as passionately as Branson, Putman and Zerman believe in their cause, veteran court observers and players in California's judicial establishment say they have not gotten much chance of success with the J.A.I.L. initiative.

"The phenomenon, of course, of disgruntled litigants is not new. I think the Internet has made it easier for disgruntled litigants to join forces," said Gerald F. Uelmen, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. "This may be a reflection of that, but I don't think there's any grassroots movement that could provide the support needed to qualify an initiative measure."

Besides, Michael Belote, a Sacramento lobbyist for the CJA, said the proposed ballot initiative is patently unconstitutional.

"One could almost pick at random every element of the California Constitution and the United States Constitution that this violates," he said. "What about a jury of one's peers, a right of confrontation, the fact that you cannot have lawyers or judges on the grand juries?"

The J.A.I.L. proponents fully expect the establishment to fight back -- and that's exactly what they hope for to jump-start their low-budget campaign.

"Once we get them to holler 'ouch,' they've done our advertisements for us," Branson said.

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