By Reggie Ellis
Sacramento – A Lindsay judge’s final plea to stay on the bench has been denied.
On May 25, the California Supreme Court denied a petition filed by Tulare County Superior Court Judge Valeriano Saucedo of Lindsay asking the State’s high court to do an independent review of the decision to remove him from office. There was no opinion issued by the court, just a denial following a conference to determine the merits of Saucedo’s petition.
Saucedo’s attorney Randall Miller filed the petition for review on March 1 appealing a Dec. 1 ruling by the Commission on Judicial Performance that Saucedo be removed from office for willful misconduct, the most serious constitutional basis for censure or removal of a judge.
The charges stemmed from a three-month period from mid-September to mid-November 2013 when courtroom clerk Priscilla Tovar claims Saucedo attempted to have an inappropriate relationship with her and harassed her through extensive conversations via text messaging. Saucedo testified he was attempting to mentor Tovar as he had done for many others in the past.
The conduct began when Saucedo claimed an unsigned, sexually explicit letter arrived by mail at his home, accusing his then courtroom clerk (Tovar) of having an affair with court bailiff Jeremy Knoy. The next day, the judge informed Tovar of the letter and offered a plan to help. During the next two months, Judge Saucedo sent Tovar about 445 text messages, gave her approximately $26,000 in gifts, including a BMW automobile and a Disneyland trip package for her family, and provided legal advice to her son. The conduct ended when Judge Saucedo accused Tovar of extortion after depositing $8,000 into her bank account.
In his March 1, 2016 appeal of the Commission’s decision to the California Supreme Court, Saucedo argued that there was no significant circumstantial evidence to establish that he did not author the anonymous letter, that the Commission ignored Ms. Tovar’s motivations and actions and only looked at the judge’s conduct, that he was not acting in his judicial capacity when he showed Tovar the letter in his chambers on Sept. 18, 2013, that the Commission’s investigation violated the judge’s rights, that the Commission admitted evidence to a misconduct claim he was never formally charged with, and that the Judge’s removal was not supported by the record and the Commission’s prior decisions.
On April 13, the Commission on Judicial Performance defended its position for the Judge’s removal. In the 110-page opinion on July 8, 2015, the three-judge panel Special Masters ruled Saucedo committed three instances of willful misconduct surrounding his attempt to have a closer relationship with his former courtroom clerk Priscilla Tovar. The instances of willful misconduct included: 1.) giving Tovar the extortion accusation letter in the courtroom during a judicial proceeding; 2.) attempting to improperly interfere with a bailiff’s duties; and 3.) falsely reporting Tovar’s overtime work.
Signed by Examiner Mark Lizarraga, the Commission’s 55-page response makes several points about the origin of the anonymous letter, beginning with Saucedo attaching a typed cover letter to it that stated Tovar should not tell anyone about what she was about to read. Tovar testified that she told Saucedo several times that she should report the letter to court administration or law enforcement, to which the Judge told her that she should not because she could get fired. Saucedo testified that he decided not to report the letter even though he understood that the letter had security implications for the court and could trigger a domestic violence incident. He also testified that he did not do anything to preserve the letter so an attempt could be made to identify the author.
In text messages, notes and his own testimony, Saucedo admitted to lying or telling others to lie which undermined his credibility as a witness. The judge lied about intercepting the letter at her husband’s employer, he encouraged Tovar to lie about the flowers being from him but rather from her husband as a message to Deputy Knoy, and told Tovar to misrepresent how she paid for the Disneyland trip package for her family and her sister’s family by telling her family it was overtime pay and not from the judge.
“Finally, 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 doubt as to the truthfulness of his answers.”
The masters panel acknowledged that Tover “did not always use the best judgment in responding to Judge Saucedo’s overtures” and “made some poor choices in continuing to accept gifts, and, in one instance, demanded Judge Saucedo make good ho his financial ‘promises’.” The response reads, “If a judge is unfit to hold office, he must be removed regardless of how a victim of other witness may have responded to his misconduct.”
The fact that Saucedo showed the letter to and the discussion about the letter with Tovar in his chambers is part of his judicial position to supervise staff, such as handling a personnel issue. In his appeal, Saucedo did not argue that his conduct was not prejudicial, meaning it did not happen in his official capacity as judge. However, even prejudicial misconduct is sufficient to remove a judge, such as falsely claiming to be ill prior to arriving at the courthouse.
“The Supreme Court has said there are few actions that ‘provide greater justification for removal from office than … deliberately providing false information to the Commission in the course of its investigation.”
Saucedo also claimed the Commission’s ruling for his removal from the bench was a much harsher penalty than two cases that involved lurid sexual relations in the courthouse with subordinate staff and allowed those relationships to interfere with court business and who lied to court administrators. In both cases, the judge’s received public censures and were allowed to remain on the bench while none Saucedo’s actions impacted a single case.
“Those cases differ from the present matter because the relationships were consensual, the judges did not lie under oath about their conduct, and the judges acknowledged their wrongdoing and expressed great remorse and contrition,” the Commission stated in its response.
Furthermore, the Commission said Saucedo’s remorse was “limited to appearing too familiar with Tovar in his effort to ‘mentor’ her,” but that the judge failed to acknowledge the most serious aspects of his misconduct of offering Tovar “gifts and favors for his own manipulative purposes.”
In their petition on behalf of Judge Saucedo, attorneys Randall Miller and Caroline van Oosterom urged the court to do an independent review of the decision which they described as “another example of the unbridled zeal to punish judges rather than be faithful to its mission of providing protection.”
On May 4, the attorneys reiterated the appeal which argued that the Commission’s ruling should be reviewed by the California Supreme Court, which has discretionary review of the Commission’s disciplinary actions, because his due process rights were violated, insufficient evidence to determine he authored the anonymous letter himself, that removal from office was disproportionate to previous disciplinary actions for more severe cases and that the Commission ignored 11 years of exemplary service prior to a two-month period of poor judgment.
Saucedo’s attorneys contend that the Commission “ignored precedent set in other decisions when it issued the order to remove Judge Saucedo.” The petition reiterates that this is Saucedo’s first and only disciplinary proceeding in an otherwise stellar and unblemished 40-year career in the judiciary. Known locally as Val, Saucedo has long been a pillar in the Lindsay community. He was a four-term mayor in the 1990s and helped lead the City through a devastating decade that included the closure of two major employers, a crippling environmental lawsuit and the economic erosion of downtown. He was named the Lindsay Chamber of Commerce’s Man of the Year in 1998. Saucedo was Tulare County’s first Hispanic Judge when he was appointed to the bench in 2001. Saucedo was assigned to Department 6 of the Tulare County Superior Court in 2010.
The 50-page petition goes on to say that the ultimate question in determining whether Saucedo should be censured or removed is “does the public need to be protected from Judge Saucedo?” A key component to deciding this is the likelihood that Saucedo would act inappropriately again. Miller and Oosterom argue that the Judge has fully cooperated with the Commission. He has answered every question, voluntarily provided all documentary evidence and did not object to the forensic search of his computer.
“After the hearing, Judge Saucedo returned to his courtroom and proceeded with regular court business until the day the Commission’s decision was announced. Judge Saucedo has shown that the likelihood of him repeating these actions are highly unlikely.”
And finally, Saucedo’s attorneys cited two cases that involved lurid sexual relations in the courthouse between a judge and subordinate staff and who allowed those relationships to interfere with court business and lied to court administrators. In the case of Judge Scott Steiner, misconduct involved sex with two different women in court chambers during court hours. He wrote one of the women a letter of recommendation and when she did not get the job “improperly used his position” to call and question why she was not hired. In the case of Judge Cory Woodward, misconduct involved a year-long sexually relationship with his courtroom clerk. He even went so far as to make inappropriate sexual gestures towards the clerk and pass her sexual notes during court proceedings when members of the public were present. The judge then interfered when she was to be reassigned.
In both of these cases, the Commission opted for public censure rather than removal from the bench because the relationships were consensual, the judges did not lie under oath and acknowledged wrong doing and expressed great remorse. These are similar to Saucedo’s case because Tovar was a willing recipient of the gifts, the Judge admitted to all of the actions he took under oath and did express remorse and contrition to the court.
And, regardless of Tovar’s claims that she felt like Saucedo wanted a romantic relationship, “the only evidence of any sign of affection was two hugs, which Tovar testified were not sexual.”