A veteran Orange County judge who used his court clerk and bailiff and official chambers letterhead to help manage his rental properties has been publicly admonished by the California Commission on Judicial Performance.
Superior Court Judge John M. Watson's "use of court staff, court resources and the court facilities for his personal real estate business was improper," according to a report made public Tuesday.
Watson, appointed to the Orange County bench in 1989 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, declined to comment.
But Ed George, a lawyer from Long Beach who represented Watson through months of legal wrangling with the commission, said Tuesday that the judge "acknowledges the appropriateness" of the admonishment, accepts responsibility and apologizes.
"He understands that any use of court's staff and resources for personal purpose is improper," George said. "Judge Watson realizes this incident reflected poorly upon the Orange County Superior Court, and was a disservice to the public."
The story of Watson's use of his court staff and stationary for personal reasons was first brought to light in The Orange County Register in August, 2004.
Public admonishment is a public statement of rebuke of a judge's conduct, said Victoria Henley, director of the commission.
It is the least severe level of public discipline of a judge and doesn't involve removal. It is a step above a private admonishment, in which a judge is advised confidentially of inappropriate conduct.
Watson, 62, was a prosecutor in Los Angeles for 20 years before he became a judge. He served for three years as a criminal-panel judge and 13 years handling civil cases, including two years as a supervising judge. On Tuesday, he was presiding over a multimillion-dollar civil jury trial.
His current six-year term expires in 2011, but Watson will be able to retire with full pension benefits in 2009.
Watson owned two rental properties in La Habra and Whittier until 2005, according the commission report.
From 2000 to mid-2004, Watson asked his courtroom clerk to help him with the day-to-day management of the properties, including instructing tenants to call him in the courtroom, the commission found. The judge had the clerk write 40 letters, including tenancy termination notices, according to the report.
His clerk and bailiff also accepted rental payments in the courtroom, and Watson used his chamber letterhead four times, including three letters to his renters, the commission found
One former tenant, Leticia Ba˝uelos, complained in 2004 that she felt bullied by Watson.
Ba˝uelos and two other former tenants sued Watson in December 2004, alleging breach of contract and that he abused his powers as a judge in his dealings with them.
Norwalk Superior Court Judge Philip H. Hickok dismissed the suit in November 2005. Steve Silverstein, who represents the former tenants, said Tuesday that he is appealing the dismissal.
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