Thursday, December 31, 2015

Supreme Court Controversy: Chief Justice Linked to Sacramento County Judge Misconduct, Delayed Appeal in 3rd District

The pending Ferris v. Ferris appeal alleges misconduct by Sacramento County Judge Matthew Gary and seeks to establish a constitutional right to counsel in civil cases involving basic human needs.

An appeal from a high-profile Sacramento Superior Court case has languished in the 3rd District Court of Appeal for more than 39 months. Court watchdogs allege that the appellate court has deliberately delayed resolution of the appeal because it involves egregious and embarrassing misconduct by a prominent Sacramento County Superior Court judge with a history of similar conduct.

"This case represents one of the most unsettling examples we've seen of what we believe is cronyism between the Third District and Sacramento Superior Court," said Ulf Carlsson of the Family Court Accountability Coalition, a court watchdog organization."The trial court judge has personal connections in the appellate court, and the 3rd District is delaying this case in the hopes that the publicity will die down and the issues raised will become moot." 

Four of the associate justices on the 3rd District court are former Sacramento Superior Court judges, and the appellate court has long been criticized for not disclosing conflicts of interest with Sacramento County judges and attorneys. Court reform advocates contend that many judges at the two courts, and local attorneys, regularly socialize together and have personal, social or professional relationships that require disclosure or disqualification in many appeals. 

Court watchdogs also have documented that decisions of the reviewing court often ignore, minimize, or cover up misconduct by Sacramento Superior Court judges, especially in family law and divorce cases where only one party has a lawyer. The 2014 documentary film Divorce Corp, designated the family law division of Sacramento Superior Court as one of the most corrupt family courts in the United States.

The family court also has been caught up in its own massive conflict of interest scandal, with hundreds of cases potentially tainted by conflict disclosure errors, according to an investigative report by Sacramento Family Court News, an online, nonprofit journalism organization. Another report reconstructed an alleged racketeering enterprise involving collusion between judges and judge pro tem attorneys in the family law division. 

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was born and raised in Sacramento and spent 20 years as a Sacramento County judge, or justice on the 3rd District Court of Appeal. Whistleblowers allege that Cantil-Sakauye is using her position of authority as both chief justice and chair of the state Judicial Council to discourage scrutiny of her former colleagues at both courts.

Illegal Orders Against Self-Represented, Disabled Parent Still in Effect After Three Years

In the Ferris appeal, Judge Matthew Gary's alleged trial court abuse of Susan Ferris - an indigent, disabled family court parent without a lawyer - compelled a team of pro bono attorneys led by James Brosnahan of the San Francisco office of Morrison Foerster to represent Ferris in her appeal. The case is being closely watched and was featured in a front page story in the Sacramento Bee. 

According to a court reporter transcript, based on his assessment of Susan Ferris' "body language," Gary ordered the unrepresented, unemployed and disabled single parent to pay $2,500 to the opposing attorney. At another hearing, Gary ordered Ferris to pay $920 of her $1,256 monthly disability income to her ex-husband - whose monthly income was $8,089 - for child support. The order resulted in the then-52-year-old Ferris being evicted from her home and becoming homeless.

In their opening brief, Ferris' legal team argues that the orders were illegal and that another order prohibiting her from having contact with her daughter - issued without having an attorney to represent her in court - violated her constitutional rights to due process, equal protection of law and access to the courts.

"This is at the point where a lot of us think it's a disgrace," lead attorney James Brosnahan told the Sacramento Bee. "You can't take someone's child and that person doesn't have an attorney when you do it ... It's an outrage." 

"Efficient and Productive" 3rd District Delays Appeal 39 Months and Counting

The Susan Ferris appeal was filed on August 8, 2012. The final brief in the appeal was filed on December 11, 2013. On July 24, 2015 her attorneys asked the court of appeal to schedule the case for oral argument as soon as possible, according to the court docket. The request was ignored - no response by the court is entered in the docket - and the case remains in limbo.

Carlsson and his group track family court appeals and point out that 3rd District docket records show that similar appeals - filed after the Ferris appeal - have long-since been argued and decided. In a 2014 pre-election editorial, 3rd District Presiding Justice Vance Raye boasted about the efficiency of the court and encouraged voters to confirm himself and his colleagues.

"Most [3rd District judges] are former prosecutors or members of the state Attorney Generals's staff," Raye explained. "They have worked diligently to make their appellate court one of the most efficient and productive in our state."

Related coverage of the Susan Ferris case:

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