I, Cardenas

It's difficult to escape the irony that Orange County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas is a devoted fan of I, Claudius—a spicy tale of greed and corruption in ancient Rome. After a Feb. 7 special hearing of California's Commission on Judicial Performance, Cardenas awaits potential sanctions—including possible permanent removal from the bench. The commission has accused the Governor Jerry Brown-appointed judge of “willful misconduct in office, conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute, improper action and dereliction of duty.” A scathing 14-page investigative report cites nearly two dozen cases in which the judge allegedly gave special lenient treatment to criminal defendants —including a suspected drug dealer and wife beater—who had hired defense attorneys close to the judge.

Attempts to contact Cardenas for this story were unsuccessful.

Though the probe may well be the most embarrassing in recent memory for Orange County's often-embattled Superior Court judges, Cardenas has prolonged the public agony by posing as both mildly apologetic and boldly unrepentant. At the commission's recent Santa Ana hearing, he told a three-member investigative panel that he accepted “in principle” wrongdoing in just three cases and sought “forgiveness.” He acknowledged that he had ruled in cases involving two defense attorneys who were his close friends, a fact not revealed to prosecutors, who might reasonably have asked the judge to recuse himself.

Cardenas retired in 1996, but because of the county's massive court docket, he continues to serve as judge and adamantly denied handing out special favors to his pals. The feisty 24-year Republican judge also defiantly told the commission that it had unfairly tarnished his reputation, sarcastically asking if judges should “remove ourselves from life and be hermits and monks?”

A better question would have been: In Orange County, how safe is the public's guarantee of an uncorrupted justice system? If the Cardenas affair is any indication, the answer is scary.

Meet defense attorneys Leonard Basinger and his daughter Ginger Larson Kelly. Basinger is Cardenas' longtime dining and vacation buddy. Last year, he and his wife were convicted of swindling more than $280,000 from clients. Kelly is also friends with the judge, who presided over her wedding.

If the commission is right, Cardenas served as a one-stop courthouse service center—a judicial Jiffy Lube, if you will—for Basinger and Kelly. If the attorneys didn't like rulings handed down by other judges, they'd just call Cardenas and seek behind-the-scenes help. The commission says the judge bypassed formal procedures and ignored his lack of jurisdiction to improperly eliminate bail, reduce bail or soften probation terms for Basinger's and Kelly's criminal defendant clients on 22 occasions since 1993. They also say Cardenas was instrumental in the county's decision to give Kelly a lucrative taxpayer-paid legal contract, even though she reportedly did not meet minimum standards.

A few examples demonstrate Cardenas was not shy. In April 1993, Superior Court Judge Gary Ryan set bail at $50,000 for a felony defendant with a history of flight. After an ex parte communication with Kelly, Cardenas improperly inserted himself into the case and issued an order demanding that sheriff's deputies immediately release the attorney's client on her recognizance. He didn't even bother to give the district attorney's office advance notice—a mandatory requirement. A year later, Cardenas asked Judge Kathleen O'Leary to reduce a $100,000 bail for one of Basinger's clients. She refused. Again —without jurisdiction—he bypassed the DA's office, held no hearing, and ordered the suspect released on his own recognizance. O'Leary was not amused. Then, in 1996, Cardenas twice attempted to weaken sentences imposed by other judges against Basinger and Kelly's clients.

“It sounds like I was 24-7 helping these two lawyers,” the 56-year-old Cardenas told the commission. “That's a very distorted view.”

In January, Orange County's judicial system was forced to admit that it had sent an innocent man, Dwayne McKinney, to prison for 18 years. Now 39, McKinney was ordered released. A year ago, a local judge freed a man who had been sent to prison based largely on a Newport Beach police officer's testimony, which a once mysteriously missing videotape later directly disproved. Last February, Judge Everett Dickey in Santa Ana ordered former Black Panther Party leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt released after 27 years of confinement because critical exculpatory evidence had been hidden during his 1972 trial. In an ongoing and disturbing case, local authorities sent 18-year-old Arthur Carmona to prison for 12 years even though key prosecution witnesses now state they fingered the wrong man. In nearby Los Angeles, 32 criminal convictions have been overturned so far based on police corruption. No wonder the public is increasingly skeptical about the justice system. It doesn't help that members of the Orange County Superior Court—the men and women trusted to dispense honest and impartial justice on a daily basis—have already “quietly” (their term) investigated Cardenas' relationships with Basinger and Kelly and found not even a hint of wrongdoing.

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