Superior Court Judge John Trice has been censured regarding complaints made by fellow members of the bench, according to a stipulated settlement announced Thursday.
In October, the California Commission on Judicial Performance sent Trice a notice listing allegations that had been made against him. The complaint alleged that Trice used his position as a judge to benefit his marital settlement, used inappropriate language in an email to another judge and failed to disclose a longtime friendship with a San Luis Obispo defense attorney who appeared in his court.
With the stipulation, Trice admitted he made mistakes, though he said he wanted to have his day in court.
“It’s against my nature,” Trice said of the settlement. “I wanted to take this all the way through.”
But, he said, he was worried the commission that would have heard the matter might not be impartial, and he didn’t want to jeopardize his job, which he has held since 2003.
“If it were a straight jury trial, I would have done it in a second,” he said.
A censure is a strong expression of disapproval. It’s harsher than a public admonishment, but it does not entail removal from office.
The document did not identify who made the allegations. But Trice said it became clear that the complaints came from three fellow judges and a court commissioner. Meanwhile, a press release from his attorney includes testimonials from four current judges, reflecting a stark divide on the court.
“It’s almost surreal around here,” Trice said. “It’s pretty dysfunctional.”
After the allegations surfaced, Trice said he was offered a settlement that would entail a public admonishment. Instead, he requested a hearing, which would have been held in Santa Barbara before three “masters” appointed to serve as hearing officers in the matter. But, according to Trice attorney Eugene Iredale, there was a conflict of interest. Dodie Harman, the judge mentioned in the complaint about the inappropriate e-mail, had a professional relationship with one of the masters, who refused to recuse himself, Iredale wrote.
“The commission’s pre-trial procedures are inadequate to afford due process protections to the charged judge,” Iredale wrote.
Harman could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The complaint pertained to Trice’s reaction to an email sent by Harman, asking whether he could share the following day’s caseload. Harman, who was presiding judge at the time, wrote, “I was told you had left for the day so I was just wondering where you were because you did not check with me if we were covered before you left.”
Trice wrote a fiery response, saying he had been elected by the voters: “I don’t appreciate you checking on me — I don’t work for you and never will.” He later added, “Pathetic ... get a life.”
In his stipulation, Trice wrote that his emails were “intemperate.” He agreed that the manner in which he dealt with his divorce decree was inappropriate and he pledged to disclose any friendships he has with those who appear before him in court. At the same time, the stipulation recognizes Trice’s accomplishments, including 26 years with the Air Force, both in active duty and as a reserve; his work during his nearly 20 years with the District Attorney’s Office and his efforts as a judge, which includes his work starting the county’s mental health treatment and veteran’s treatment courts.
The settlement resolves all pending issues, Iredale wrote. “It ends a two-year ordeal for Judge Trice and his family.”