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Photo by Joy BastOrange County's Superior Court judges can't seem to avoid controversy. Three years ago, a judge was disciplined for telling off-color jokes during a sexual-harassment trial and encouraging jurors to buy a book he wrote. Earlier this month, a state appeals court unanimously rejected a Newport Beach-based judge's decision to allow open discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens during jury selection. Another judge, Luis A. Cardenas, faces possible expulsion from the bench for allegedly handing out special favors to defense attorneys who were his personal friends.
The Weekly has learned that yet another ugly courthouse controversy is brewing in Orange County. Superior Court Judge James M. Watson, who tries civil cases, has officially demanded that litigants and witnesses who are HIV-positive publicly disclose their illness before they enter his courtroom.
"Please notify the court immediately of any witness problem," Watson wrote in his "Ground Rules" for trials. "All witnesses will be excluded, unless an agreement to the contrary is approved by the court. Counsel are responsible for monitoring the courtroom to effect the purpose of this rule. Also notify the bailiff if any witness or party has an infectious disease such as hepatitis, AIDS, etc."
One local attorney—who practices before Watson and who spoke on condition of anonymity—called the rule "puzzling and bizarre even for Orange County."
"I've been practicing law for more than two decades, and I've never seen anything like this," the attorney said. "Ground rules are always pretty mundane. I guess Judge Watson thought he'd spice things up."
In an interview with the Weekly, Watson—a Huntington Beach Republican who spent 20 years as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney and was first appointed to the bench by Governor George Deukmejian in 1990—tried to downplay the controversy.
"It's not like I'm ordering anyone to disclose this [their HIV status]. I'm just asking," he said. "There is a difference."
Watson said no particular civil-trial incident prompted the rule, but that he carried it over from his days as an Orange County criminal judge, "when we had rules about 'keep-aways' for obvious reasons."
The judge's other rules—11 tedious pages—are clearly not written as suggestions but rather as requirements. They include "address all comments to the court," "counsel will assume that trials will be conducted Monday through Friday unless otherwise notified by the court," and "please keep the exhibits in the respective boxes on counsel table."
Watson's AIDS-disclosure policy is listed as Rule No. 2—immediately after "please be on time."
A review of ground rules issued by other judges in Orange and Los Angeles counties found no similar policy, a fact Watson dismissed. "I don't care what other judges do," he said.
According to the judge, he has kept the rule because he "doesn't see the need to change anything" and that "people around here need to know about that. . . . What if somebody [with HIV or other infectious diseases] needs the restroom or spits or gets into a fight?"
Myron Dean Quon, a Los Angeles attorney with Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a gay civil-rights group, first asked if the rule was a "bad joke."
"This is a huge problem. The government cannot force disclosure of HIV status; that is a requirement of a California statute," said Quon. "There are also major privacy concerns here. I just don't get what the judge is thinking. How is that information relevant to a judge in civil cases? It's fascinating."
Indeed, the California Health & Safety Code provides for monetary sanctions up to $10,000 against "any person who negligently discloses results of an HIV test." Another part of the statute—"Disclosure in court proceedings"—declares that "no confidential research record [of HIV status] may be compelled to be produced in any state, county or other civil proceeding." It's not clear whether the state law would apply to Watson's policy.
Asked about privacy concerns, the judge said, "I don't know anything about that." Later, he said, "Maybe they are entitled to not tell me. I don't know." But he also argued that "it's not a public declaration if it's just made to me and my bailiff."
Quon called the judge's explanation "amazing."
"This seems to me to be a facile case of a violation of privacy," said Quon. "I just don't see any justifiable reason for this."
Watson does. "It's really about comfort and safety in my courtroom," he said. "As far as if this is a political message I'm sending in my courtroom, nothing could be further from the truth."