Judges hold a special place in the community and are expected to adhere to a set of rules and ethical standards that the average Joe or Jane can choose to ignore. But judges also have their own distinct personalities, biases, attitudes, and ideologies, which they labour to keep in check in order to ensure that justice is both done and seen to be done.
Some judges display severe personalities, no off-the-cuff quips and nary a smile adorns their face, while others have effusive, even bubbly personalities and seem to enjoy interacting with lawyers and the public.
A good example of the latter is Judge Gary Kreep of the San Diego Superior Court who, as a newly elected judge, was criticized for the levity he displayed as he presided over the cases that came before him.
He ended up in judicial disciplinary proceedings before the Commission on Judicial Performance over a number of issues related to his election to the bench, and for comments he made in court, most of which were relatively harmless, but could easily be misconstrued.
When a female litigant appeared before him he commented that he “loved her accent”. Ms. Hernandez was a United States citizen who spoke fluent English with a Mexican accent. He also quipped that he had “no intention of deporting her”.
When it was suggested to him that his comments belittled her, he acknowledged that his reference to deportation was inappropriate but explained that he was simple trying to “get a laugh and put people at ease”.
Judge Kreep also liked to use nicknames for the lawyers, clerks, and interns that regularly appeared in his courtroom. With respect to three legal interns from the Public Defenders Office, he called them “Bun head”, “Dimples” and “Shorty”. Shorty was 6 feet 7 inches tall and testified before the discipline board that Judge Kreep called him Shorty at least ten times while court was in progress.
He also had a penchant for commenting on the attractiveness of the women who appeared in his courtroom, saying, “She’s a pretty girl, you know you could smile”, or “the lovely attorney showed you the form, correct?”
A deputy city attorney, who was pregnant, was the recipient of his attention as well. On one occasion he said to defence counsel, “Let’s get on with this, we don’t want Ms. S. to have her baby in the courtroom.” During other appearances he said “It’s getting closer Ms. S.” and “She wants to go home and have her baby, I’ll pick on her today.”
In criminal court he interacted with a female accused charged with prostitution who entered a guilty plea. He asked her “Ma’am, anything I can do to get you out of the life?” Later he asked her, “Is it you like the money or just like the action?” The accused began responding only to be cut off by Judge Kreep who asked “Are you going to try to get a job at the bunny ranch in Nevada?” This comment was in regards to the accused’s statement that she might leave California. His final remark was “I don’t think it’s a good lifestyle choice, but it your lifestyle choice and it’s your decision.”
At the discipline hearing Judge Kreep testified that his comments were intended to show support for her predicament, and also to persuade her to change her conduct and lifestyle.
In response to the whole of the allegations against him arising from his courtroom decorum, Judge Kreep acknowledged that he ran the proceedings in a casual matter and admitted that his comments could be taken as offensive or demeaning, although that was never his intention. He denied that his levity rose to the level of sexual harassment.
The offenses arising from his election campaign included his failure to report campaign expenses, and the use of his personal credit card and bank account to pay campaign expenses.
The discipline panel found that he engaged in one act of wilful misconduct, 17 acts of prejudicial misconduct and 11 acts of improper action, leading to the most severe form of censure. A minority of the Commission panel would have liked to see his removal from the bench, however, it was noted that most of his offenses occurred during his first year as a judge and he had changed his behaviour since then.
As for his in-court comments, in my view they were neither offensive nor demeaning, although admittedly, calling intern lawyers by fanciful nicknames was a bit odd. It seems to me that Shorty and the others could and should have addressed their discomfort with their nicknames directly with Judge Kreep, who by all accounts appears to be a congenial, likeable fellow.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang