A Sacramento County superior court judge who once jailed a trial witness for allegedly flipping the bird violated the witness’ due process rights and abused his authority on multiple occasions, a state supreme court panel found this week.
On Monday, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jaime R. Roman received a sanction of public admonishment from the California Supreme Court’s Commission on Judicial Performance.
The admonishment is a rare form of discipline for members of the cloth that has been dispensed only 86 times in two decades.
The commission issued only two public judicial admonishments last year. Meanwhile, of the 1,245 complaints against judges it reviewed last year, mostly from litigants, 92 percent were resolved without disciplinary action.
That practice is even rarer in Sacramento County.
Ronan is one of only two local superior court judges to be censured by the commission since it formed in 1960. The last censure occurred more than six years ago, in January 2010, when Judge Peter J. McBrien was publicly disciplined for a second time by the panel.
Like his colleague, McBrien was found to have abused his authority and shown bias.
In Roman’s case, it took more than six years for complaints against him to come to a disciplinary resolution.
According to the May 16 letter of public admonishment against Roman, the 11-member commission found at least four instances spanning two years where the judge abused his authority.
Two of those instances occurred during a felony DUI trial in 2010, which resulted in an [four-years-and-]eight-month prison sentence for defendant Tony Londell Johnson, according to online court records.
According to court trial transcripts cited by the commission, problems arose when a defense witness identified as Bryan Jones was being sworn in to give testimony and made a hand gesture that the judge interpreted as displaying the middle finger.
“I think we can do without that, Mr. Jones,” the transcript quotes Roman as saying.
Jones then proceeded to give his testimony for the remainder of the day. After recessing the proceedings, Roman excused the jury, but held Jones back, the commission letter states.
“All right. Mr. Jones, I’m having you here because when the clerk administered the oath to you, you characteristically did what we refer to as flipped her off,” the transcript quotes Roman as saying.
He then ordered the witness jailed for three days on a contempt finding.
Jones denied making the gesture, saying any offending movement was an involuntary result of his arthritis, and asked what would happen to his daughter, who was present in the courtroom.
“That’s unfortunate,” the judge responded. “You’ll be there for three days.”
By finding Jones in contempt and sentencing him without giving him the chance to be heard, Judge Roman abused his power, the commission found.
The commission also found that, during the same trial, Roman improperly fined Assistant Public Defender Crystal Lamb $150 for missing a court date, without giving her prior notice that he was contemplating such an action, as required under the Code of Judicial Ethics.
The commission also cited Roman for improper decisions he made during two family law cases in 2012, both of which involved attorney Steven Wessels.
In the first, the judge awarded a total of $59,000 in attorney fees and costs against Wessells and his client—including $25,000 worth of sanctions against the attorney—even though the petitioner in the case hadn’t requested the awards and Wessells’ side wasn’t given any notice or opportunity to argue the decision.
Wessells protested and Roman vacated his decision two months later. But the commission decided the original mistake “raised an appearance of lack of impartiality and embroilment,” compounded by the fact that Roman originally followed up his sanctions against Wessells by reporting the attorney to the State Bar. In speaking to the judicial oversight commission, Roman said he corrected that mistake after vacating the awards, which the commission said he characterized as “a harmless mistake that he corrected immediately.”
In the last instance, Roman violated the due process of another of Wessells’ clients, a father whom the judge ordered to hand over property in a family court dispute without giving him the opportunity to rebut the mother’s claims.
The judicial oversight commission voted 9-0 to censure Roman, with one member recusing himself and another one not participating in the disciplinary action. A representative of the commission didn’t immediately respond to a request for information.
Messages to the Sacramento Superior Court and Judge Roman’s office also haven’t been returned.
A judicial phone directory incorrectly lists Roman as presiding over Department 63. The judge presides over Department 61. The directory lists him as presiding over probable cause petitions and hearings, Americans with Disabilities Act cases and warrants.
McBrien still handles family law, emergency protective orders and disability claims.
Wessells couldn’t be reached for comment prior to this writing. The website for the State Bar of California shows that he was suspended from practicing law in 2015, but was reactivated on April 25. Wessells’ voice mail says he is no longer practicing law.