For Monterey County Superior Court Judge José Ángel Velásquez, it’s going to be another long year. For the second time during his 11-year tenure with the Court, the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) is investigating Velásquez for wrongdoing. The first time, in 1996, he got a slap on the wrist. This time around, he could well lose his robe.
Currently, Velásquez is being accused of various acts of misconduct, including having his children in chambers and on the bench, making improper statements about sentencing, imposing sentences based on a defendants’ credibility, issuing improper bench warrants, and not advising defendants of their rights.
Velásquez’ attorney Jim Murphy says the charges are ridiculous, adding that the things Velásquez does on the bench are no different from what any other judge in similar circumstances does on a daily basis.
Murphy says Velásquez is “doing ok, and holding up well under the circumstances.”
But for some Velásquez supporters, it looks like the beginning of the end—the culmination of an entire career on the bench where Velásquez was the outcast, the unaccepted one from the day he was sworn in and his colleagues didn’t show for the swearing-in ceremony.
“He was the new guy, the vocal Mexican. That didn’t sit well with the old white bench. It wasn’t fair,” says one court staff member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
This was never the way Velásquez intended it to be.
Since childhood, Velásquez says he’s dreamed of practicing law. “I was 6,” he says, “working by my parents’ side in the fields, and I just knew.” His mother died when he was 12, and he says he promised her he’d work his way out of the fields and into college. In 1983, he graduated from Santa Clara University’s law school.
By 1995, Velásquez had earned his way to bench, unseating then-judge Lydia Villareal, a Pete Wilson appointee, in a special election. Villareal was popular in the legal community, and the election didn’t sit well with his colleagues. The backlash came hard and fast.
“It wasn’t comfortable around here for a long time,” Velásquez says. “Everyone was waiting for me to screw up.”
He did. Velásquez hung a crucifix in his courtroom, allowed his name to be used in a pro-choice ad, announced he’d be tough on drunk drivers, called Judges Scott, Sillman, Curtis and Duffy “racist” and alluded to a conspiracy against him in a 1996 interview with the Weekly. In a rare move, the CJP publicly censured him.
He learned to keep quiet. It worked—until late last year when a local lawyer made an anonymous complaint to the CJP.
Complaints aren’t unique. In the last 10 years, the CJP received 10,311 of them. Fewer than 50, however, resulted in formal proceedings.
“There’s a real hurdle in going against the Commission,” Murphy says. “[The Commission] gets the complaint, investigates it themselves, brings the charges and makes a decision. It’s the equivalent of a prosecutor in a criminal case doing his own investigation, selecting a judge, telling the judge how to decide, and then handing down the discipline.”
Murphy says most of the charges against Velásquez will likely be deemed unfounded when the Commission listens to the tapes of the court proceedings.
Like most judges, Murphy says, Velásquez gives a blanket statement of rights to all defendants at the beginning of each court session.
Other allegations Murphy calls ironic at best, particularly the charge of pinning a sentence to a defendant’s credibility. Murphy recently represented Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Ross during similar proceedings. “After the formal hearing, [the Commission] made a decision that he lacked candor, and ordered him off the bench,” Murphy says. “Now [Velásquez] is being accused of doing the same thing? It doesn’t make sense.”
Murphy explains that all judges must adhere to sentencing guidelines, but each has discretion within that range. Sentences are often based on a defendant’s credibility.
The local legal community remains hush-hush on the subject of alleged judicial misconduct—as it has been through the years when Velasquez’ colleagues experienced one sex scandal after another.
One judge did offer an opinion about the charge of Velásquez having his kids in chambers and on the bench during case discussions: “Good thing they’re not investigating all of us, or California may not have any judges left.”
It’s the kind of camaraderie Velásquez always wanted and the kind of support Murphy says he’s now getting from colleagues. “This is not like last time,” Murphy says. “The relationships have evolved. Now [Velásquez] is enjoying the full support of his bench brethren. They’re really standing behind him.”
Velásquez has until May 11 to answer to the charges. Murphy says it’s going to be a long, uphill battle. “[Velásquez] recognizes that the CJP is out to strip him of his robe; they have been for a while.”