Parents with grievances against experts who testify or treat children, as ordered by judges, can take their claims to the Board of Behavioral Sciences or the Board of Psychology. But, even those bodies within the Department of Consumer Affairs encounter issues of transparency and access to documents that are confidential in the interest of protecting a child’s privacy.
When the process of a divorce begins, petitioners and respondents must disclose their assets and expenditures.
“They need to do away with income and expense declarations so that these attorneys and these judges, the courts, don't know how much money they have to play with…and try to extort from people,” said a mother who came to our studio to share her story, but chose to keep her identity concealed. She said she fears speaking to the media will result in her judge retaliating against her.
Parents have the right to a peremptory challenge, basically, they can remove a judge from their case. But this can only be done once. If they disagree on an order, they can also appeal the case. However, that appeal can only be based on a legal error, not factual errors of the case.
Judicial complaints are for the most part also confidential, except for a minuscule number of cases where judges acted so wrongfully that they were publicly disciplined. Since 1995, only 11 judges have been removed from the bench by the commission that oversees judgeships. The Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) receives thousands of complaints annually.
Of the 1,229 complaints the Commission made conclusions on, just five judges were publicly disciplined. Three judges were publicly admonished, two were censured, and no judge was removed from the bench. Those are the only ways the public can learn that a judge has received a complaint. All others, including private investigations or admonishments, are confidential.
Even attorneys participating in the system say they are unwilling to speak on the record, fearing that if they defend a judge publicly, that could be used to disqualify them from a case.
Parents from across California, the country and the world have reached out to ABC10 with claims of corruption and bias, but without the proper data collection, constitutional protections, transparency and accountability these complaints remain disconnected, marginalized and unheard.
That’s why parents and advocates for court reform have taken this fight to the legislature. In 2016, they got the state to audit the Commission on Judicial Performance for the first time in its almost 58 year history
According to Kathleen Russell, Director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, “this crisis in the family courts has been going on for decades and it's taken a long time to get people to believe that this isn't just an anecdotal case or two but this is system wide failure in the California family court.”
The CJP sued State Auditor Elaine Howle to stop the audit. The Commission’s attorney Gregory Dresser told ABC10 their records are confidential and protected by the state constitution.
Howle’s attorney doesn't buy it, saying, "the Commission says 'no, you can’t look at it, we’re special.' And the auditor says, 'we’ll keep them confidential.' State law says the state auditor has to keep them confidential or there’s a crime; so there’s no issue here. We’re not gonna violate their confidential files, but they’re afraid.”
A judge ruled in favor of the Commission on Judicial Performance. The state auditor appealed, but that process could take years. Now, lawmakers are pressuring the CJP to somehow settle with the auditor or else lose their budget to operate. A Catch 22, since that could take the level of oversight from flawed to inexistent.
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