Adopting findings of fact by 3 special masters who presided over a hearing, the California Commission on Judicial Performance removed a judge for authoring and showing to his courtroom clerk an anonymous letter accusing her of infidelity in order to promote a closer personal relationship with her; engaging in a course of conduct, including texts and gifts, intended to promote a closer personal relationship with her; and related misconduct. Inquiry Concerning Saucedo, Decision and order (December 1, 2015).
On September 17, 2013, an anonymous letter was delivered to the judge’s home accusing his courtroom clerk of having an affair with a court bailiff. The “crude and vile” letter was purportedly a copy of a letter addressed to the clerk’s husband at the hospital where he worked. The next day, the judge called the clerk into his chambers, told her to close the door, and showed her the letter. The clerk began crying and said she needed to report the letter to court administration or law enforcement. The judge responded that she could not “tell anybody” about the letter and claimed she could be fired if she reported it. The judge said that, if she trusted him completely, he would call her husband’s employer and ensure the letter would be intercepted. Later, the judge told the clerk that, when he called the hospital, “John,” the human resources manager, told him the anonymous letter was sitting on his desk and that “John” had shredded the letter during their phone conversation. In his testimony and in his verified answer, the judge acknowledged that he had not attempted to contact anyone at the husband’s place of employment and that he made these false statements to make the clerk “feel better.”
In the 2 months following the letter, the judge sent the clerk about 445 texts, many “overly personal and emotional,” and gave her gifts, including flowers, $9,200 in cash, payment of a $533 car repair bill, a trip to Disneyland for the clerk and her family worth $3,202, and a BMW sedan worth $15,000. The judge used the anonymous letter to pressure the clerk when she sought to distance herself from him, for example, stating “Do you want your husband to find out about the letter?”
Although the judge’s misconduct is unusual, even given the wide variety of misconduct for which judges can and have been disciplined, there is one factor in the case that is present in many removal decisions – a lack of candor in the discipline proceedings.
For example, the judge denied writing the anonymous letter. The Commission, however, found that the judge did write the letter and mailed it to himself as part of a “predesigned plan to manufacture the clerk’s dependence on him, hoping it would lead to a closer personal or ‘emotional’ relationship with [the clerk].” The Commission stated that the judge’s actions after receiving the letter – falsely telling the clerk he had contacted her husband’s employer and demanding that she tell no one about it – “make sense only if he was the author” and, therefore, could be certain that the letter would never be received by [the husband] and that there were no security concerns associated with [the husband] receiving the letter.”
The Commission also rejected the judge’s claim that he intended only to “mentor” the clerk by helping her with her finances.
Mentoring involves advice, direction, referrals and encouragement. As stated by the special masters, “Mentoring is not accomplished by providing a subordinate with thousands of dollars in gifts, including a BMW car and vacation,” an offer to pay for body sculpting” or expecting a ‘special’ friendship in exchange.”
Further, the overly personal and emotional language the judge used in his text messages and notes to [the clerk] is far from the type of supportive but professional communication one would expect in a mentoring relationship (i.e., “It’s silly but still feeling under appreciated”; “I, too, am human and have an ego. Feel free, if you wish, to compliment me if you like things I do or wear”). Further, the judge repeatedly stated and suggested that he wanted a closer or “special” relationship with [the clerk] in exchange for his “gifts,” something that would not be expected or appropriate in a mentoring relationship (“If you want me to be an ordinary friend like I was before September, I will provide only moral support. But if you want me for a special friend, everything is on line with full financial and moral support going forward. Special friend means you want to make time and effort to share thoughts and experiences with me”; telling [the clerk] that his accountant questioned why he was buying her all of these gifts and whether this was a “one sided friendship”).
Further, the Commission adopted the masters’ credibility determination that, when the judge’s testimony conflicted with the clerk’s, the clerk’s testimony was credible and her version of events was true. The clerk’s testimony was consistent with and corroborated by documentary evidence, including her text messages and notes and letters given to her by the judge, and she recalled numerous details that “coincided with, and were substantiated by, the content and timing of the documents.” In contrast, the judge’s testimony was often inconsistent with his text messages and notes, documents he signed, and his prior statements. The Commission also relied on the masters’ finding that “the manner in which Judge Saucedo testified – failing to answer direct questions, providing nonresponsive and sometimes rambling answers, and answering with irrelevant points – created significant doubts as to the truthfulness of his answers.”
It is impossible to know whether the judge could have preserved his career by more candor and less deceit, but it seems likely given the significant mitigating factors; the Commission acknowledged his lack of prior discipline and his many contributions “to his community and the legal profession, and to promoting diversity on the bench and in the legal profession.” However, the Commission concluded:
The deceitful, calculated, and unseemly nature of the judge’s misconduct, compounded by his lack of candor in response to the commission’s investigation and untruthful testimony under oath before the masters compels our decision to remove Judge Saucedo from office. We recognize Judge Saucedo is a well-respected jurist who has devoted many hours to giving back to the community. Nonetheless, his reputation cannot redeem the seriousness of his wrongdoing, nor obviate the need for removal in order to fulfill our mandate to protect the public and maintain public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.