Illustration by Christian Pennington
The California Attorney General’s Office has decided not to pursue criminal charges against a pair of Humboldt County Superior Court judges accused of submitting false affidavits to the state in order to receive their salaries.
The office’s review of the case — conducted at the request of Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming — spanned more than a year, following a pair of public admonishments issued by the Commission on Judicial Performance, the state body tasked with oversight and discipline of California’s nearly 2,000 judges. According to a California Department of Justice spokesperson, the AG’s Office decided last month, “after a complete review … no action is warranted on the part of this office.” A letter the office sent to Fleming notes that the judges face "persistently extreme workloads" and that the commission is the entity tasked by the state with judicial oversight.
"It is our belief in these instances that the Commission on Judicial Performance was the most qualified entity to investigate and take appropriate action, and in this case it did so," the letter
The two admonishments — the first issued to Judge Dale Reinholtsen in September of 2015 and the second to Judge Christopher Wilson in January of 2016 — were unprecedented in Humboldt County, and represent the first time the commission has publicly disciplined a local judge since its formation in 1960. Statewide, the commission fields some 1,200 complaints a year but metes out discipline — ranging from private advisory letters to removing judges from office — in only 40 or so cases annually.
The admonishments constitute black marks that threaten to forever stain the careers of Wilson and Reinholtsen, but they have been met with mixed reactions in the local courthouse, where both judges are widely considered thoughtful, thorough and hard working, and some see the public reprimands as the result of a “crushing” and unrealistic caseload.
The admonishments stem from a provision in the California constitution that requires the state’s judges to decide matters submitted to them within 90 days. State law requires judges to submit affidavits to the state swearing that they don’t have any matters pending before them that are more than 90 days old in order to receive their paychecks. If they have a backlog of decisions, the state withholds their salaries until they’ve cleared their desks of delinquent rulings.
In its admonishments, the Commission on Judicial Performance alleged that Reinholtsen and Wilson both repeatedly signed affidavits while they had delinquent decisions pending and that both illegally received their paychecks from the state on numerous occasions. Specifically, Reinholtsen was alleged to have decided 20 matters past the 90-day deadline, signed false affidavits seven times and illegally received his salary 13 times over the course of several years. Wilson was alleged to have signed eight false salary affidavits and received his salary on six occasions when it should have been withheld under the law.
Reinholtsen and Wilson both declined to comment for this story, with Wilson saying it would be inappropriate of him to do so because the Journal
currently has a matter pending before him. Humboldt County Superior Court Presiding Judge Joyce Hinrichs, meanwhile, also declined to comment.
As we reported in our March 10, 2016, cover story “Judged
,” the commission pointed to heavy caseloads as a potentially mitigating factor in its admonishments of Reinholtsen and Wilson. The state has determined Humboldt County needs two additional judges to manage its current caseload, yet has so far refused to fund the new positions. Local judges also have minimal support staff, with only one staff attorney to research case law for all seven judges and a pair of administrative assistants the judges share with the court executive office.
When the Journal
spoke to Dustin Owens, president of the Humboldt County Bar Association for our story last March, he said the local association considered whether to make a public statement on the admonishments — whether it be condemning the judge’s actions or defending them — but couldn’t reach consensus. Some felt Reinholtsen and Wilson broke the law, committing perjury — considered a crime or moral turpitude and a disbarrable offense — by knowingly signing a false affidavit and should be punished. Others felt they are good judges in an untenable situation who were being reprimanded for taking on too much in an effort to keep the court’s head above water.
Some local attorneys also expressed concern about how the admonishments may impact Humboldt County’s ability to fill its bench in the future. Currently, one of the county’s seven local judgeships is vacant, and has been since Judge Bruce Watson retired last January as the governor’s office still has not appointed a replacement. Some think that is in part because there has been a dearth of applicants for what many consider an undesirable job.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that Judge Reinholtsen got back to us in order to decline to comment for this story.