Special masters find California appellate judge engaged in misconduct against women
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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Special masters find California appellate judge engaged in misconduct against women

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

As to a female colleague, his pattern of conduct was "‘unwelcome, undignified, discourteous and offensive, and would reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment or as bias and prejudice based on gender.’"

Against the backdrop of a #MeToo movement that continues to make headway in workplaces all across the United States, a panel of special masters with the California Commission on Judicial Performance found the "high proof burden" met in most of the counts alleging that a state appellate court justice engaged in inappropriate conduct towards 17 women, including three court of appeal justices, three court research attorneys, two judicial assistants, and six private attorneys.

Misconduct. The alleged misconduct ran the gambit from overly familiar compliments to highly offensive touching and vulgar, sexually explicit statements. After 17 days of testimony, the special masters found proven allegations established that Justice Jeffrey W. Johnson:

  • Lacked personal boundaries;
  • Engaged in unwanted touching of several women;
  • Attempted to use the prestige of the judicial office to create personal relationships with women; and
  • Engaged in ongoing improper touching and sexually related comments toward a particular female colleague, a court of appeal justice.

The special masters found that Johnson's pattern of conduct toward these women reflected ethical lapses that undermine the public's trust in the judicial process and erode the confidence that the public places in individual judges. These lapses were compounded by Johnson's failure to take responsibility for many of his actions and to manifest insight into his behavior.

Of particular concern. Particularly concerning to the special masters were Johnson's actions towards women who had recently graduated from law school, were in the early stages of their legal careers, and welcomed the opportunity to establish professional contacts with a court of appeal justice. The most serious misconduct occurred when Johnson was intoxicated, impairing both his judgment and his recollection of events.

Sexual harassment of female justice. As to the alleged misconduct against one of his court of appeals colleagues, the special masters wrote: "With limited exceptions, we find the Examiner proved the Count 1 factual allegations and that Justice Johnson's pattern of conduct toward [his colleague] was ‘unwelcome, undignified, discourteous and offensive, and would reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment or as bias and prejudice based on gender.’" concluding that Johnson's conduct violated canons 1, 2, 2A, 3B(4), 3B(5), 3C(1), and 4A(2) of the California Code of Judicial Ethics, and constituted prejudicial misconduct.

The special masters found there was proof by clear and convincing evidence that Johnson:

  • Briefly entered her hotel room uninvited while he was intoxicated during a trip to a judicial college in Reno in 2010;
  • Twice asked her to have an affair;
  • Touched her inappropriately over nine years, including intimate hugs with breast touching and patting her buttocks; and
  • Stated he wanted to kiss and squeeze her "titties" and made inappropriate comments about her nipples.

The examiner established that this conduct violated judicial canons and constituted prejudicial misconduct.

Now that the 316-page report of the special masters has been completed, Johnson will appear before the Commission on Judicial Performance, with the Commission determining the final outcome.

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