Ethical Lapse - Judge says "Nothing Improper"
Ethical Lapse - Judge says, "Nothing Improper"Sunday, July 2, 2000
Ex-Justice's Service as Referee Raises Questions
Law: Armand Arabian once worked with a lawyer involved in a case now assigned to him. The jurist says nothing is improper, but others see a conflict.
In what some experts said was an ethical lapse, a retired state Supreme Court justice who was appointed as a $500-an-hour referee in a civil lawsuit failed to disclose that he had recently done legal work for one of the attorneys in the case, according to documents and interviews.
Armand Arabian, the retired justice, was appointed by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Dec. 17 to resolve pretrial disputes in a lawsuit over construction of an office building in Palmdale. One lawyer was R. Rex Parris.
Two months earlier, Parris and Arabian had been co-counsels in a slander lawsuit before the state Supreme Court.
In an interview, Arabian acknowledged that he had not disclosed his prior relationship with Parris, but said that the relationship had been fleeting and that no one had asked about it. Arabian said there is no requirement, legal or ethical, that he disclose his relationship with Parris. No one involved in the ongoing case has accused him of bias.
.... the California Code of Judicial Ethics, the bible of judicial conduct in the state, requires a court-appointed referee to at least disclose relationships that under state law might be grounds to bar a sitting judge from presiding over a case. Specifically, the law says that a judge must be removed from a case if "a person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial." That ethical requirement has been applied to court-appointed referees since March 1999.
Additionally, the California Rules of Court, which have the force of law, state: "A referee who has been privately compensated in any other proceeding in the past 18 months as a judge, referee, arbitrator, mediator or settlement facilitator by a party, attorney or law firm in the instant case shall disclose the number and nature of other proceedings before the first hearing."
The case demonstrates the potential for perceived conflicts of interest in the relatively new and largely unregulated field of private judges, some experts said.
"This is the very type of incident that our recommendations were intended to correct," said Jay Folberg, a University of San Francisco School of Law professor who led a statewide advisory committee that studied private judging. It recommended stronger disclosure standards.
Officials of the State Bar of California said they have not yet brought disciplinary charges against any referee, in part because conflicts of interest are considered minor offenses that are unlikely to warrant investigation, given limited resources.
"Private judging just kind of falls through the cracks," said Gerald F. Uelmen, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and an expert on the state court system.
Attorneys generally are reluctant to challenge referees, although they have the legal power to do so, because they are unwilling to risk angering the trial judges who appointed the referees and ultimately will decide their clients' cases.
"It is pretty clear, there is an intimidation factor here," Folberg said.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times
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