Using taxpayer funds, government officials in Orange County have spent the last 16 years arguing the most absurd legal proposition in the entire nation: How could social workers have known it was wrong to lie, falsify records and hide exculpatory evidence in 2000 so that a judge would forcibly take two young daughters from their mother for six-and-a-half years?
From the you-can’t-make-up-this-crap file, county officials are paying Lynberg & Watkins, a private Southern California law firm specializing in defending cops in excessive force lawsuits, untold sums to claim the social workers couldn’t have “clearly” known that dishonesty wasn’t acceptable in court and, as a back up, even if they did know, they should enjoy immunity for their misdeeds because they were government employees.
A panel at the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit this week ruled on Orange County’s appeal of federal judge Josephine L. Staton’s refusal last year to grant immunity to the bureaucrats in Preslie Hardwick v. County of Orange, a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages. In short, judges Stephen S. Trott, John B. Owens and Michelle T. Friedland were not amused. They affirmed Staton’s decision.
But to grasp the ridiculousness of the government’s stance, read key, Oct. 7, 2016 exchanges between the panel and Pancy Lin, a partner at Lynberg & Watkins.
Trott: How in the world could a person in the shoes of your clients possibly believe that it was appropriate to use perjury and false evidence in order to impair somebody’s liberty interest in the care, custody and control of that person’s children? How could they possibly not be on notice that you can’t do this?
Lin: I understand.
Trott: How could that possibly be?
Lin: I understand the argument that it seems to be common sense in our ethical, moral . . .
Trott: It’s more than common sense. It’s statutes that prohibit perjury and submission of false evidence in court cases.
Lin: State statutes.
Trott: Are you telling me that a person in your client’s shoes couldn’t understand you can’t commit perjury in a court proceeding in order to take somebody’s children away?
Lin: Of course not, your honor.
Trott: Of course not!
Owens: Isn’t the case over then?
Trott: The case is over.
Lin: Thus far we have not been presented with a clearly established right that tells us what our clients did which was remove the children pursuant to a court order.
Friedland: The issue here is committing perjury in a court to take away somebody’s children and you just said that’s obviously not okay to do.
Lin: According to our moral compass and our ethical guidelines, but we’re here to decide the constitutionality of it and we look to the courts to tell us.
Trott: You mean to tell us due process is consistent with a government official submitting perjured testimony and false evidence? How is that consistent? I mean I hate to get pumped up about this but I’m just staggered by the claim that people in the shoes of your clients wouldn’t be on notice that you can’t use perjury and false evidence to take away somebody’s children. That to me is mind boggling.
Lin: In criminal proceedings we know this to be true because . . .
Trott: No, no! It’s a court proceeding with a liberty interest, a fundamental liberty interest at stake.
Lin: And on the reverse side . . .
Trott: And you’re telling us that these officials [weren’t] on notice that you can’t commit perjury and put in false evidence?
Lin: I understand broadly the principle that common sense tells us that lying is wrong and lying to . . .
Trott: Yeah, but it’s more than common sense. We’re using statutes against this kind of behavior.
Lin: I, uh, I don’t. I was not presented [sic]. I have not been seen [sic] any federal law or case law or law that tells me that in this situation that we were faced in that, which is what we have to look at . . .
Trott: Well, say your clients hired six people to be actors and to go into court and to say, ‘We’re neighbors and we saw all this terrible stuff.’ And then your client presented those witnesses in court. You’re telling me that they would have no reason to believe that you can’t do that because there was no federal case that says you can’t bring actors into court to swear falsely against somebody?
Lin: But again here we’re appealing to a sort of broader definition of what is a clearly established right. I mean we have to find the clearly established right in the context our, um, social workers were presented with, which was they were faced with a court order.
Trott: Again, I cannot even believe for a micro-second that a social worker wouldn’t understand that you can’t lie and put in false evidence!
Owens: Let me ask the question a different way. Is there anything you know of that told social workers that they should lie and that they should create false evidence in a court proceeding?
Lin: No, and, of course, that is, uh, we contend that is not what happened here.
Successfully arguing for Hardwick, attorney Dennis Inglos of San Jose followed up to Lin’s dismal performance, stating, “Lying is bad. It’s obviously bad. It’s constitutionally bad . . . They keep fighting the proposition that lying is bad. This is astounding to me that this case is still being fought. It’s so simple. The lies are on paper in a transcript—the deliberate falsehoods.”
Now that Lin and county officials have been alerted by the Ninth Circuit that lying by powerful bureaucrats is bad, the civil case resumes inside Orange County’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.