On April 23, 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States denied the petition for “stay of execution” (of coercive confinement for civil contempt of court) by attorney Richard I. Fine in the case of Richard Fine v. Leroy Baca, Sheriff of Los Angeles County (09-1250). In doing so, the highest court of the land has refused to rectify a clear-cut case of judicial corruption in the state of California.
So who’s Richard Fine and how did he run afoul of the law? A distinguished attorney with a doctor of law degree from the University of Chicago Law School and a Ph.D. in international law from the London School of Economics, Mr. Fine has practiced law in government service and private practice for 42 years and achieved considerable distinction in both. He has served in the antitrust division of the Justice Department, founded the Anti-Trust Division in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and was awarded the prestigious “Lawyer of the Decades” award in 2006. He has also won numerous cases on behalf of California taxpayers in state courts, including a 2003 California Supreme Court lawsuit that stopped salary payments to the governor and the legislators if they were unable to pass the budget.
Yet this distinguished 70-year-old attorney in poor health has been sitting in solitary confinement in “coercive incarceration” in the notorious Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail without being charged, tried, or convicted of anything since March 4, 2009. In effect, he was thrown in jail for an indefinite period with no bail or hearing set for blowing the whistle on judicial corruption in California.
The chain of events that led to his incarceration was set in motion in 2000, when Richard Fine became aware that L.A. superior court judges were receiving illegal “judicial benefits” payments from Los Angeles County, despite the fact that lawsuits against that county were often adjudicated by these same judges, thus creating clear conflict of interest problems. By 2007 these payments amounted to $46,436 per year on top of their state salary of $172,000, making L.A. superior court judges among the highest paid in the country. Not only was this a blatant conflict of interest but also unconstitutional, insofar as the California constitution states clearly (in Article VI, Section 19) that “the legislature shall prescribe compensation for judges of courts of record.”
In Richard Fine’s opinion, these payments were illegal if not criminal, and in 2000 he began challenging them in various appellate briefs and lawsuits against several judges, thus making himself extremely unpopular with the superior court bench and also with the county supervisors who had authorized the payments. The usual justification the supervisors give for extending these payments to the judges is the ostensible need to attract qualified jurists in a high-cost-of-living area like Los Angeles. Less well publicized is the possibility that by granting the judges such payments, the supervisors may be voting themselves a pay increase as well. Article II, Section 4 of the Los Angeles County Charter states that the supervisors’ compensation “shall be the same as that now or hereafter prescribed by law for a judge of the Superior Court in and for the County of Los Angeles.”
Not surprisingly, since the initiation of these “judicial benefits” in 1988 — at a cost to L.A. taxpayers of some $300 million to date — the county is reported to have seldom lost a lawsuit in superior court. It also appears to be the case that Los Angeles County is not the only California county which provides such payments and, according to one estimate, 1,500 out of a total of 2,000 superior court judges in the state are allegedly implicated in receiving the illegal payments, as are five of the state’s Supreme Court justices.
Mr. Fine’s current misfortunes stem from his demand at a contempt hearing on March 4, 2009, that Judge David P. Yaffe of the Los Angeles Superior Court, a recipient of such illegal payments, recuse himself from the case in front of him, in which L.A. County was a party. Judge Yaffe had Mr. Fine handcuffed and thrown in jail for civil contempt of court for an indefinite period. Judge Yaffe was later to explain that “the intent of the (non-criminal) solitary confinement was to coerce Richard Fine into submission.”
Yaffe’s unusually confrontational behavior was preceded by events that must have given him and his colleagues assurance that they had nothing to fear on account of these illegal payments. The first such event, paradoxically, was a decision by the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appelate District in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (BC351286, filed 10/10/2008) that payments to the judges were not permissible and that the legislation’s responsibility to prescribe compensation “is not delegable.” Alarmed by this decision’s implication of potential criminal liability for judges and politicians alike, California’s political and judicial powers that be moved quickly and quietly to rectify the situation legislatively. As California grappled with the huge budget-deficit crisis afflicting the state in early 2009, the Judicial Council of California, chaired by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, quietly drafted, the legislature approved, and the governor signed a senate bill (SBX2-11, enacted February 20, 2009) giving retroactive immunity from criminal prosecution, civil liability, and disciplinary action to “judges that had received payments from a governmental entity prior to the bill’s effective date.” In doing so, the legislature and the governor essentially admitted that the payments had indeed been illegal and very likely criminal.
Emboldened by the granted immunity, the judicial machine moved to get rid of Fine once and for all by having the California State Bar disbar him for “moral turpitude,” a course of action reminiscent of the Soviet Communist regime’s practice of declaring political dissidents criminally insane and locking them up in psychiatric wards.
In the meantime, Mr. Fine’s jailer, L.A. county sheriff Lee Baca, has started releasing hundreds of convicted criminals from Men’s Central Jail because of overcrowding. Overcrowding is evidently not an issue for Richard I. Fine, now serving his second year of an indefinite solitary confinement term as an American prisoner of conscience.
– Alex Alexiev is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.