On October 7, on the proverbial heels of the week-long trial earlier this year before the Special Masters, the Commission on Judicial Performance convened in San Francisco’s Ninth Circuit Court for final arguments concerning Tulare County Superior Court Judge Valeriano Saucedo.
The focus of allegations of judicial misconduct in 2013 toward his previous courtroom clerk, Priscilla Tovar, the proceedings represented Saucedo’s final hearing before the Commission renders its decision on whether he continues as a California judge.
The seats of the modestly-sized courtroom were filled to capacity by friends and family, interspersed with a few reporters. Attorney Randall Miller was present as Saucedo’s counsel. Squaring off against him were examiners Gary Schons and Sei Shimoguchi of the CJP’s Office of Trial Counsel, who were replacing previous examiners James Harrigan and Valerie Marchant in the matter.
The nine-member panel (composed of Judge Erica R. Yew, Chairperson; Judge Thomas M. Maddock, Justice Ignazio J. Ruvolo, Nanci E. Nishimura, Esq., and public members Dr. Michael A. Moodian, Mary Lou Aranguren, Richard Simpson, Sandra Talcott, and Adam Torres) sat in controlled silence as Examiner Schons brought the matter to date, picking up where the proceedings had left off in April.
Progressing through the details of Saucedo’s misconduct as noted in the Special Masters Report 1, Examiner Schons discussed Canon 2 and 2A of California’s Code of Judicial Ethics, focusing on case law treating offenses to 2A as separate and distinct from offenses to Canon 2. He wrapped up his arguments by asking the Commission to remove Saucedo from office.
“We believe the public does need to be protected here because any judge that would engage in the kind of deceptive, irrational conduct that he engaged in here and then lie about it to the Commission and the Special Masters is not someone that should be entrusted with making decisions which affect other people’s lives. […] We assert that any other result other than removal would signal to the public and the judiciary that the bar is way too low and judges aren’t being held to high standards. […] And that is in addition to the fact that his conduct was so contrived and so bizarre, who is to say what the judge might do if left on the bench?”
In rebuttal, counsel for Saucedo argued that certain perceptions of Judge Saucedo’s misconduct and untruthfulness before the Special Masters were more attributable to misunderstanding and nervousness. He reiterated Judge Saucedo’s insistence that he was not the author of the “anonymous letter [regarding Tovar],” and had not acted in a judicial capacity in many of the circumstances involved. Miller provided similar defense argument as made previously before the Special Masters in April. For its part, the Commission appeared unfased by the quick synopsis of Saucedo’s defense rendered by Miller, who then offered the remainder of his speaking time to Judge Saucedo himself, in an apparent attempt to personalize Saucedo to his jury.
With only a few minutes to speak, Saucedo regaled the Commission with a story of his early childhood in the Chicano Movement of the 1960’s.
“When I was in high school, I walked into a store. And this man saw me with my shirttails out, and he walked up to me and he said, ‘Son, you shouldn’t wear your shirttails out because it gives a bad appearance; it gives people a bad impression about you.’ He was white; I was brown. And very easily I could have gotten in his face and said, ‘Why are you down on me? Why are you doing this to me?’ I didn’t. I heard his message. I tucked my shirttails in. I went on, graduated from UC Berkeley, came back to my community; and I searched out that man, and I thanked him for the message that he had given me.”
His testimony harkened back to testimony he made before the Special Masters on April 7, 2015, in which he attempted to relate the same or similar story.
“I am a little bit embarrassed by it, but growing up under the circumstances under which I grew up, I learned early on that I could not be — if I was only as good as the white kids around me, that I would not succeed, that I had to be twice as good only to have an equal standing. And so for me, working twice as hard came to symbolize that. And that is that I had to be twice as good as the white kids around me, otherwise I couldn’t succeed because of the color of my skin. […] And so the context of the conversation with Ms. Tovar was in that context, was that we had to work twice as hard to achieve and to accomplish. She’s Hispanic, like I am, and that is what I was trying to convey.”
With both parties resting, the Commission began questioning on what they obviously felt had not been fully discussed – the determination by the Special Masters that Judge Saucedo had not been truthful in this testimony before them. Chairperson Yew addressed Examiner Schons directly.
“Setting aside, you know, the alleged misrepresentation of the authorship of the letter, what weight do you believe this Commission should put on the Special Masters’ findings that Judge Saucedo was not forthright during the proceedings?”
Examiner Schons was careful to measure his response.
“We would argue that in addition to his conduct, the fact that he was not forthright, the fact that he was found to lack credibility, that he, in fact, perjured himself in denying, for example, the anonymous letter, is of great weight. And, of course, there are other aspects of credibility where he urged Ms. Tovar to lie, and he, in fact, lied about things that he did in the course of his conduct. All of that goes to his credibility. All of that goes to his integrity and ought to weigh in the balance of the discipline that the Commission would hand down.”
Miller argued that Judge Saucedo was continuing to maintain his denial of authoring the anonymous letter regarding Tovar, and that any previous testimony he had rendered in the matter appearing untruthful, was more attributable to nervousness than evasion. Expressing Saucedo’s admission to, and apology for, certain actions at issue, Miller nevertheless countered Examiner Schons’ arguments by claiming the evidence before the Commission was more in the realm of circumstantial, and so fell short of the standard of evidence required in meting out judicial punishment as severe as removal from office.
Discussion narrowed to the legal differences between “judicial” versus “administrative” capacity, providing an informative glimpse into the wheedling which pervades discussion of this larger issue on a larger scale. Speaking assertively, Justice Ruvolo voiced issue with Miller’s arguments.
“What about factors that constitute abuse or misuse of court staff by a judge? Aren’t those actions acting in a judicial capacity, when a judge takes advantage or misuses or abuses a staff member?” Ruvollo asked pointedly.
“Well, if you’re talking about Ms. Tovar, I would say I don’t think that that was the circumstance here because, by definition, the interaction with Ms. Tovar had nothing to do with her job or responsibilities in the courtroom,” Miller responded.
“She was his clerk,” Ruvollo retorted sharply, raising tension.
“She was his clerk” Miller parroted calmly. “I agree that there was that connection. But beyond that, by design – according to the Examiner’s charges here, by design, it had nothing to do with her job responsibilities or any court related or administrative tasks.”
“If that were true, then any sexual assault by a judge on the judge’s staff would not constitute official judicial acts,” Ruvollo pointed out.
“It may not in some circumstances,” Miller replied. “I do agree. It would depend on the circumstances. But I would think that there would be situations where that would not be in a judge’s judicial capacity.”
Almost precisely an hour later the Commission adjourned, stating it would be meeting in closed session to deliberate before providing written decision to the public. While the Commission’s decision would become final after 30 days, within that time, Saucedo has the right to petition the California Supreme Court for review of the Commission’s determination. Its decision as to whether Judge Saucedo continues as a California judge could be rendered as early as November.
Meanwhile, Saucedo faces a federal lawsuit by Tovar in Fresno’s Eastern District Court (Case No. 1:2015at00425), under to 42 USC § 1983. It is possible that court will pay close attention to any decision the CJP makes regarding the administrative or judicial capacities of Judge Saucedo’s misconduct toward Tovar.
Questions still linger as to what these events mean for William Fabricius of Ducor, who continues to claim that Judge Saucedo signed an illegally placed order against him, which resulted in the taking and murder of twenty-five of his ranch dogs – without notice or hearing. Specifically, Fabricius is claiming that Saucedo’s order was issued in the midst of the “two-month period” for which the judge is being tried by the Commission; that Saucedo’s mental focus on Tovar, up to and including Saucedo’s threat of suicide during that time adversely impacted his case.
“While he was chasing Tovar’s affections, Saucedo signed a warrant bypassing my rights under Food and Agriculture Code, and county ordinances. The only time I knew someone had complained about my dogs was when animal control came rolling in like SWAT; dragging my dogs around, shooting them with tranqs. Most were pups. I never even had a chance to said goodbye,” Fabricius said.
Born near Tornillo, Texas in 1951, Valeriano Saucedo’s family settled in California in the early 1960’s, where he spent long hours of his childhood working daily on everything from apples to olives – both before and after school. He labored right up until he began attending UC Berkeley, following that with a stint at Stanford Law School.
Saucedo began his legal career in 1976 as a labor lawyer with California Rural Legal Assistance, starting as a staff attorney and eventually being named that agency’s statewide director. From there he moved to private practice, battling the “powers-that-be” in agribusiness and working to improve pay and working conditions for migrant farm laborers. In 1990, he was elected to city council for his hometown of Lindsay, becoming its mayor three years later. Meanwhile, Saucedo scored victories in court on behalf of farmworkers.
In 1995, he forced Dole Food Company and its subsidiaries to pay $1 million in damages and forced it to reform its hiring its practices toward settling a sex discrimination claim brought by female workers at citrus packing houses. In 1997, he won a $500,000 settlement for Watsonville strawberry pickers who claimed they were underpaid and forced to provide their own farm equipment. He also helped litigate a high-profile federal class action brought by hundreds of former Mexican contract workers known as braceros against the United States and Mexican governments as well as several banks.
California’s first Hispanic judge, Saucedo was appointed by Democratic Governor Gray Davis to a vacancy in Tulare Superior Court in May of 2001. Judge Saucedo might be the third Tulare County judge to be punished by the CJP in its history.
Previously, the CJP publically admonished Tulare County judges Stephen Drew in 1996, and Howard Broadman in 1998. Broadman was further censured the following year.