When Newport Beach Superior Court Judge Susanne S. Shaw announced her September retirement, she handed Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger a chance to solidify the GOP's hold on the local courts. And, indeed, Schwarzenegger went for conservative gold, announcing last week that he is leaning toward Jim Rogan, a retired congressman from Glendale more famous for his leadership role in the Clinton impeachment.
Rogan was one of the few to emerge from that fiasco with his reputation not only intact, but enhanced. Liberals and conservatives alike say Rogan, now an Irvine attorney, is reasonable, intelligent, articulate—and, unlike Shaw, judicious. The conservative, Santa Ana-based state court of appeal called Shaw's courtroom style "imperious," "caustic," "condescending," "disrespectful," "demeaning" and "sarcastic." Her legal rulings? According to the justices, they're "baffling," "flawed," "inexplicable," "unjustified," "unacceptable," "unfair," "unwarranted," "wholly uncalled for," "inappropriate," "improper," "wrong," "inconsistent," "prejudicial," "erroneous" and "indefensible."
Though Shaw, a 60-year-old former prosecutor, has served on the bench for more than two decades, the 21 unflattering descriptions mentioned above came from a single court of appeal ruling announced on Aug. 2.
In fact, her rulings have been overturned a staggering 13 times in just the last two years; since 2001, the higher court reversed her decisions an unbelievable 18 times. Many of the rebukes pertain to suppression of evidence issues, sentencing, and courtroom decorum as well as "erroneous interpretation and application of law."
The latest case involves the conviction of Joseph Mark Urias, 48, for "assault with force likely to produce great bodily harm" during a fist fight with apartment roommate Howard Woolf. The July 2004 festivities began when one of the roommates—both gave police conflicting accounts—called the other "a clown" and the other roommate replied, "No, you're the clown." A bloody fight ensued that shattered a wine glass and left both men half naked and one of them semi-conscious on the floor.
As a defense, Urias wanted the jury to know that Woolf had started the fight. He claims he'd told Woolf he was moving out of the apartment and wanted him to apply a previously paid security deposit to the rent. But Woolf became violent because he'd secretly spent the deposit and "was now on the hook for the entire month's rent with no money to pay it," according to Urias.
Judge Shaw adamantly blocked these details from the jury, saying they were "irrelevant."
"You know, I'm not getting into landlord/tenant disputes or whether he paid his rent or didn't pay his rent," she said. When the defense lawyer objected, Shaw cut her off three times in a row, threatened contempt charges and said, "I'm telling you right now, it's irrelevant, boom, finished. We are off the topic. Next?"
A trial transcript reviewed by the Weekly shows Shaw continuously made derogatory, personal remarks about the defense in front of the jury. Reviewing Urias's subsequent complaint, the court of appeal was horrified. In their 18-page opinion, the panel said the "sheer number of instances of judicial misconduct" in the case is "profoundly troubling."
"The cumulative impact of the trial judge's caustic, condescending remarks to Urias and his defense counsel, together with her flawed legal rulings, leaves us no confidence in the verdict," the justices wrote. "We reverse the judgment, although we regret any additional taxpayer expense involved in a retrial, especially because such cost might have been avoided had the trial judge exhibited the patience, dignity and courtesy that is expected of all judges."
Shaw has a history of controversy. In 2000, California's Commission on Judicial Performance publicly admonished her for "intimidating, demeaning, undignified, discourteous and biased" conduct during the previous decade. She'd reportedly sung a song during a trial, angrily accused a prosecutor of hypocrisy for drinking on the weekends but refusing to reduce DUI charges on a particular defendant, and lightheartedly told a "young skinny white" defendant that he was going to be ass-raped in prison.
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"She's crass, outrageous, entertaining and perhaps a little mentally ill," laughed one veteran prosecutor who knows the judge. "But she's not as crazy as the court of appeal makes her seem. She's actually pretty smart."
It's doubtful that Shaw, who did not return calls for an interview, cares about her public image at this point. Later this month, she's going on an extended vacation that will lead into retirement. But if she's looking for new work, we suggest that she try to replace the more fragile Judge Judy on television.
Most judges are grim-faced, humorless. Not Shaw, who though she is sometimes called "The Hanging Judge," can laugh about it: at a Newport Beach gathering of political and community leaders in the late 1990s, the short, stocky judge mounted her chair, yelling and swinging a noose in the air. The audience around erupted in laughter, and Shaw laughed with them—but not as hard as she will if she lands the job she really wants next: to return to the bench as an appointed, retired judge. There's speculation that she'll ask Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George for the courtesy. She'd get $550 per day above her retirement pay.