If two crusaders succeed, judges will be liable for decisions
days, Ronald Branson and his wife take turns at the computer in the
of their San Fernando Valley home, waging war against what they
see as a
major failing of their country's court system.
Their Web site, www.jail4judges.org
, blasts the
"arbitrary abuse of the
doctrine of judicial immunity." They shoot off
frequent e-mails to rally
their troops, like the one last April when
Branson praised a Nightline
report called "Blaming the Bench." "We are only
now viewing the
beginning of a looming showdown in this nation on this
typed to his audience, which he says numbers at least 1,000
For a decade, Branson, a prolific pro per, and Gary Zerman, a
attorney similarly disillusioned with the courts, have sought a
around the immunity that shields judges from suits over their actions
In the 1990s, they tried to get an initiative on the
that would have created a special grand jury able to
state judges or to strip them of the immunity defense in
"Members of the group are not going to police the group,"
"You have to have outside independent people to make sure
mechanisms of accountability are there."
But their low-budget
operation ran into a roadblock: It took far too
many signatures to get
anything on the ballot in their populous home
though, things have been looking up for the founders of
the JAIL movement,
which now aims to get a foothold for its Judicial
Law in any state it can. A feed-machine
businessman from South Dakota,
where the population is roughly 1/50 of
California's, has enthusiastically
taken up their cause, and is
sponsoring a JAIL initiative there. In
December, a petition drive funded
by about $140,000 of William Stegmeier's
money gathered enough
signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the
Zerman and Branson hope a win in South Dakota will
momentum to propel them into other states. That's also the
lawyers and judges who claim a law like JAIL would be both
and philosophically dangerous.
Stegmeier's South Dakota
initiative was a topic of conversation among
the state chief justices who
gathered last month for a national meeting,
said California Chief Justice
Ronald George. While he doesn't seem to be
losing sleep over it, he's not
shrugging it off, either. "I don't know
that anything like this has
qualified on a state ballot before, so I
think that means that it has to be
Branson is already looking ahead, to other
He'd like to take on Nevada next, but he's not
ruling other places out.
If anyone can come up with a million dollars, he
says, JAIL might take
another stab at California.
"I'm gambling on
the idea that if we prevail in South Dakota, we'll have
the attention of so
many news sources, and so many money sources will
come to us," he figures.
"Success breeds success."
Branson, who says
he's been a minister since his three-year Army stint
in the 1960s, peppers
his speech with analogies. The South Dakota
initiative is like a wick
burning toward a barrel of gunpowder, a
wrecking ball that will pick up
momentum, the first domino that will
topple. When he reminisces about his
battles with the courts, he uses
the lottery, or a baseball game, to make
He has been a pro per, on and off, for about 20 years,
suits against the government, and by his count, he's sued more
a dozen judges. He says his legal education began in the early
when his wife, a legal secretary, lost her job with a district
attorney's office and sued to demand a civil service hearing.
had 14 trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, and not one time have the
addressed any of the issues I raised in those cases," Branson
cert petitions were all denied.
"It would have been an act of insanity
for me to continue seeking
redress in the judicial system," he says. "I
said, we've got to do it
some way that doesn't include government."
When he met Zerman by chance, he found a collaborator.
were both at a speech by then-state Sen. Tom Hayden, when Branson overheard
Zerman complaining to the legislator about the state's
Branson remembers following Zerman back to his
seat. "I knelt beside him
and I said, 'Hello, I'm Ron Branson, and I
understand exactly what you're talking about here,'" Branson says. "He was
getting nowhere as an
attorney, I was getting nowhere as a pro se."
Court dockets show that at least 10 cases involving Branson have
the Second District Court of Appeal, and at least five petitions
review have been denied by the California Supreme Court.
case that really galled Branson, though, was an unlawful-arrest
against the city of Los Angeles, in which he contends a judge
entered a required default judgment, leaving him no ruling to appeal.
Had a law like the South Dakota JAIL amendment existed in
Branson says, once his appeals were exhausted, he could have
to a special grand jury that the judge had blocked the lawful
of his case. If the panel decided his complaint wasn't
judge could have been prohibited from claiming judicial
"This is the only thing that's going to
straighten out the politics in
this country," Branson declares, before
pausing: "You can tell I get
going like a racecar."
While Zerman, a
former insurance defense lawyer, isn't as prone to
metaphor, he is equally
passionate in his view that judicial immunity
from suits is inherently
unfair. "The rule of law exists for some and
not others," he says.
Zerman's first real encounter with judicial immunity was a
suit, he says, in which he represented a pair of clients suing
well-known California plaintiff attorneys, the late Melvin Belli of
Francisco, and Santa Monica's R. Browne Greene.
Zerman says he
got his head handed to him by a judge at trial, and then
got "what I
believe was a fraudulent appellate opinion." He eventually
sued the trial
judge and appellate panel, but it did no good, he says.
He also tried
filing an accusation of misconduct against the two
plaintiff lawyers with
the California Supreme Court, but the justices
declined to hear it. Then,
in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court declined
Zerman's petition to review the
California high court's decision.
"In some of these cases when you get
hosed initially and then you start
to appeal, the appellate system doesn't
work," he says. "They can't
admit that the system is that out-of-whack."
After his chance meeting with Branson,
Zerman says, "Ron grabbed onto
the initiative [idea], and he started
drafting." What the pro per wrote,
Zerman and others polished.
They've been trying to sell their vision ever since, though as
they can be something of a contrast.
Branson boasts of a
national JAIL organization with military-esque ranks
and titles. He calls
himself the National JAIL Commander-in-Chief -
similar, he says, to a
five-star general. When he appears at
particularly formal events as a
representative, like a conference he
attended in Virginia, he wears a blue
suit with five stars on his chest,
and five more on the points of his shirt
collar. The ranks below him, he
explains, go from
lieutenant-commander-in-chief (the equivalent of a
four-star general), to
jailer-in-chiefs (two-star generals) in charge of
Zerman, on the other hand, refers to JAIL as a "loosely knit" group,
doesn't use his title. When he makes a high-profile appearance on
behalf, like he did on CNN a couple of months back, he says, "I
wear a business suit."
He estimates that he spends about 30
hours a week working on JAIL
efforts from his home office or doing
interviews, and suggests his
crusade to reform has hurt his civil practice.
"I have a few cases, but you pay a price for doing this," says
who is acting as a spokesman for the South Dakota campaign. "I
[potential clients], having me as your attorney may be hazardous to
case, because I've got some judges gunning for me."
all that, he and Branson weren't getting very far. That is,
Internet extended the reach of their message.
As best he can recall,
William Stegmeier, whose company outside Sioux
Falls makes grinders for
livestock feed, ran across JAIL's Web site and
was intrigued enough to
donate $100 or so.
"You know, a lot of patriot organizations,
sometimes they link to each
other," Stegmeier said by cell phone from rural
South Dakota. "The name
jail4judges does elicit curiosity, no doubt about
It wasn't long, Stegmeier added, before he got an e-mail asking
he wanted to be "jailer-in-chief" for the state.
he's put up about $140,000 of his own money for a
based on the California JAIL proposal drafted
by Branson. Last month, South
Dakota's secretary of state declared that
the amendment had the 33,456
signatures needed to qualify for the
going for a toned-down image, Stegmeier says he calls his
campaign South Dakota Judicial Accountability. And on the
he's not really using the jail4judges name - "We thought
it would be a bit
too strong for rural South Dakota" - nor going by his
Surprisingly, the amendment's sponsor says he's never had a problem
any judge, himself. "I really haven't had much involvement in courts."
He does remember being bothered more than a year ago, though, by a
case in Fort Worth, Texas. The judge, he said, wouldn't allow a defendant to
enter the U.S. Constitution as evidence. "Now, how ridiculous is that?"
"I'm a patriot. I have three young children," he added. "I look at
as my civic contribution to the country." CALL IT
Given Branson and Zerman's roots, some judges in
California are keeping
tabs on the South Dakota election.
such a frightening assault on the bedrock principle of an independent
judiciary," says Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Friedman, president of
the California Judges Association.
He's not sure how to evaluate its
chances, he adds. "But I know that many judges are - and I would include
myself - [concerned] that if it were to succeed there, even though it's maybe
a small and distant state, that could give the movement some momentum
Still, he's not sure whether any of the amendment's
critics in California will get involved in the campaign against the amendment
in South Dakota.
"I don't want to prematurely or unnecessarily build
it up in order to knock it down," Friedman said. "I would rather that it never
got off the ground in the first place."
Tom Barnett, the Executive
Director of the South Dakota Bar, would have
preferred JAIL never left its
home turf. "We wish they just would've
started out in California and stayed
He has talked with South Dakota judges in passing about the
"While they were concerned, my recommendation is, you don't
type of initiative with a response," he says. "You let Main
Street businesses and people involved in civics and [local government] say
this is their fight - because the attack is an attack on Civics 101."
Barnett prefers not to go into too many details about the
counter-offensive, though. "The last thing I want to do," Barnett says, "is to
have Mr. Branson sit out there in California and read what our campaign plan
is." That will surely disappoint Mr. Branson.
"You ever see one of these fish, they have this extension on their
that looks like a worm?" says Branson. The fish he's thinking of,
explains, hunts by hiding all but that piece of its body, waiting
another fish gullible enough to try for a nibble.
can't resist themselves, they have to attack us," Branson
says. "And every
time they attack us, they're ruining the element
judge a judge
A constitutional amendment on the November
ballot in South Dakota
threatens to make state judges there more vulnerable
to civil lawsuits
and criminal prosecutions.
Accountability Initiative Law, which needs a simple majority to pass this
fall, would create a special grand jury with the power to criminally indict a
judge, or to bar him from using the judicial immunity defense in a civil suit.
No one could lodge a criminal accusation with the special jury unless
prosecutor had declined to file charges. And no one could bring a
accusation without having exhausted state court remedies.
After receiving the judge's response to civil allegations, the
special jury would decide by majority vote whether the judge
judicial immunity if the accuser were to sue in civil court.
The amendment specifies that immunity should not be allowed for any deliberate
violation of the law or the state or federal constitution; fraud or
conspiracy; intentional violation of due process; deliberate disregard of
material facts; actions without jurisdiction; or the blocking of the lawful
conclusion of a case.
Judges amassing three adverse immunity decisions
or criminal convictions
would be kicked off the bench, with their
retirement benefits cut by at
Critics say the proposal
is unworkable, and a threat to judicial independence.
there's a dissatisfied person there'd be a lawsuit," says
president of the State Bar of California.
Larry Mann, a South Dakota
political consultant working against the
amendment, also argues that it
would only serve to shift immunity. "It's
so broadly written that it
creates this special grand jury [with] almost
unrestrained authority to do
almost whatever they want, without any
proponents who have long hoped for such a law in California counter
the current checks on judges aren't enough.
"Until a judge has become
an open embarrassment to the system, they just
won't be prosecuted," said
Californian Ronald Branson, who drafted the
template for the JAIL amendment
about 10 years ago.
Gary Zerman, a Valencia solo practitioner who's
worked with Branson to
promote such initiatives, likewise expresses
disappointment in the
Commission on Judicial Performance. "The CJP just
gives them a public
censure and lets them go on like nothing happened."
- Pam Smith
Reporter, The Recorder legal