Judge Dread Takes the Stand

Jurist Bruce Van Voorhis is a model of efficiency but has the tongue of a serpent. The latter may be his downfall.

Stacey Brock stepped into the haven of Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis as a young, inexperienced deputy district attorney with just three months on the job. She left it as one of his casualties. It was January 2001, and Brock’s superiors at the Contra Costa County DA’s office had entrusted her with a can’t-lose DUI jury trial. All she had to do was lay out the evidence and stick around for the guilty verdict.

It didn’t work out that way. After the defense lawyer entered a routine, but rarely approved, motion to suppress statements made by his client on the night in question, Brock immediately objected.

“Overruled,” the judge said.

Brock was stunned. All of her law books told her such statements were admissible. She respectfully brought the judge’s attention to relevant cases and statutes. “You don’t need them,” the judge shot back. When she pressed further, she later recalled, Van Voorhis leveled an icy stare and asked, “Are we through?”

The young prosecutor then moved to introduce the results of the defendant’s sobriety tests — again, textbook stuff. She began with the “horizontal gaze nystagmus test,” better known as the follow-the-pen-with-your-eyes exam. But Van Voorhis ruled that Brock would need an expert witness to interpret the test for the jury — and a patrol cop wouldn’t do. Again, Brock was bewildered. A ruling from the state Supreme Court five years earlier clearly stated that police officers could provide such testimony.

Confused, but not defeated, she called the arresting officer to the stand. She asked the cop if the defendant at any time had trouble taking instructions.

A loud voice from behind the bench interrupted her. As Brock recalled it, the face of the 53-year-old jurist flushed in anger, his body tensed, and his voice turned sarcastic. According to the trial transcripts, he told Brock that it didn’t matter if the defendant took instructions well. A debate between judge and prosecutor volleyed for a few minutes, with Brock repeatedly asking to settle the matter quietly at the bench, and the judge repeatedly refusing. In the end, the irritated judge ordered her to turn to the jury box and admit that her line of questioning meant nothing.

“Are you ordering me to tell the jury it doesn’t matter?” asked Brock, humiliated.

“Yes,” he said.

Brock swallowed her pride, turned to a juror she deemed sympathetic, and said, “Apparently, this doesn’t really matter.”

She still managed a guilty verdict, but as she gathered her things to leave afterward, Van Voorhis remained to offer some advice: Always prepare for the unexpected in the courtroom, he told Brock. Judges are human, and they can rule in strange and unpredictable ways. Good prosecutors think on their feet and never lose their cool. Overall, Van Voorhis added, he was impressed that she hung in there.

But before leaving, Brock later alleged, the judge also said something that suggested he’d neglected his sworn duties to neutrally uphold the law. “I knew you were entitled to admit those statements,” she recalled him saying. “But I kept them out to see how you would handle yourself.”

The judge’s attempts — this wasn’t the first — to dole young prosecutors a life lesson recently backfired. Citing Brock’s case and others, a panel from the state Commission on Judicial Performance in September ruled Van Voorhis guilty of several acts of judicial misconduct. The full eleven-member commission — three judges, two lawyers, and six civilian gubernatorial appointees — will meet in San Francisco next month to determine the judge’s punishment, which could conceivably include removing him from the bench.

The panel’s ruling was based largely on his chilly courtroom demeanor, but county prosecutors have taken things a step further, arguing that the judge is biased against the DA’s office — its young female attorneys in particular. The office has filed a motion asking the Superior Court to bar Van Voorhis from hearing criminal cases. While the controversial jurist awaits judgment, he has been exiled from his Walnut Creek pulpit to a tiny traffic court on the edge of Concord, where he churns out rulings on questionable left turns and parking-lot fender benders. The prosecutors hope he stays there. “His behavior has gotten so out of control it’s affecting justice,” says Doug Pipes, a senior deputy district attorney who led the office’s investigation.

Van Voorhis is not without defenders. Even his critics admit that he has an exceptionally bright legal mind and is the taskmaster who boasts the county’s cleanest docket. In the overwhelmed criminal court system, he is one of very few judges who keep the wheels greased, mowing through cases so quickly that he often asks the supervising judge for more. His supporters also say that new prosecutors who are unfamiliar with Van Voorhis’ zeal often mistake his stern diction for unfairness.

Defense attorney David Pastor has tried more than a hundred cases in Van Voorhis’ court over the past fifteen years, and was among six lawyers who testified before the state commission on his behalf. “The DA perceives Van Voorhis as biased against them, but that’s simply not true,” Pastor says. “When they complain about the judge, they’re really complaining about his demeanor, his personality. But if they have a winning argument, they’ll win. The judge is a fair man, there’s no doubt. But they make the mistake of taking the judge’s sternness personally.”

Prosecutors also bristle at his tough-love lessons. The county DA’s office hires new blood straight out of school and gives the deputy prosecutors a three-year probationary period during which they are judged largely on their conviction rates. Jim Murphy, Van Voorhis’ attorney, says the young lawyers enter his client’s courtroom book-smart and so obsessed on winning a permanent job down the road that they mire the court with unnecessary motions and evidence. Van Voorhis likes to use the opportunity to educate them, and asks them to pass the lessons along to their peers back at the office. “They bring the judge a lot of useless information,” Murphy says. “And he has to tell them so, which they don’t always like.”

After reviewing the judge’s demeanor in the Brock case, the commission ruled that his belittling of the lawyer in open court was uncalled for, but concluded that Van Voorhis didn’t actually violate any laws. “We cannot find, as of the time of the ruling, he deliberately made an erroneous ruling,” the commission wrote. Which is to say Van Voorhis may have driven Brock crazy with his petulance, but he didn’t deny her or the defendant a shot a justice.

Speaking through his attorney, Van Voorhis declined to comment for this article, but responded to the DA’s complaint in a 51-page response filed just last week. In it, he paints himself as a deeply misunderstood man who’s become the victim of a political “shark feeding frenzy” by the DA’s office. He insinuates that ever since he defeated then-Deputy DA Bruce Mills for the bench job, the prosecutors have had it in for him.

“My language is generally not disparaging,” Van Voorhis writes in his defense. “My tone of voice is generally stern and professional and I do not try to convey any message about anyone’s intelligence. I admit (and regret) that on rare occasions I have been sometimes so bothered by things that have happened within my courtroom that I have been unable to hide my feelings. For example, out of frustration, I once stated to a defense attorney of many years, ‘Didn’t you learn that in law school?’ when he blatantly, repeatedly violated the well-known rule of evidence prohibiting hearsay.”

Shortly after Van Voorhis was elected judge, complaints about him began coming in, mostly from those who offended his desire for courtroom speed. In 1992, the state commission reproved him for using an “intimidating and sarcastic tone” with two attorneys who’d simply requested continuances. He once barked at a clerk who was swearing in the courtroom bailiff: “Thank you,” the clerk recalled Van Voorhis saying, “for wasting twenty seconds of my time.”

The judge was also cited for his tone with potential jurors who later said they “perceived a lack of sensitivity and felt intimidated by the judge’s questioning.” After one jury foreman passed Van Voorhis a note containing errant grammar, the judge stopped to chastise the author by suggesting that such a note would upset any English teacher. When a review committee asked another juror, a second-grade teacher named Vicki Maggi, how the judge made her feel about her participation, she replied: “I felt angry that I was there. And I wasn’t proud to be a part of that. I felt I — you know, we were assumed to be of little importance and rather stupid.”

A few years later, Van Voorhis reportedly lost his temper with a courtroom clerk and threw a stack of files in her direction. After that incident, then-presiding Judge Mark Simons asked him to enroll in anger management classes, which the judge refused. Instead, he penned an apologetic letter to Simons. “I recognize the need to resolve this problem,” Van Voorhis wrote. “People often misunderstand me. They don’t perceive where I’m coming from, what I’m about, and what it means to do what I do.”

And finally, after the DA’s office began complaining, the Commission on Judicial Performance investigated Van Voorhis’ conduct back to 1995, including a claim that he told an Ecuadoran-born attorney to “lose the accent.” (The judge denies the remark, but maintains he had trouble understanding the attorney.)

The accusation that seems to have most rankled Van Voorhis is the DA’s claim that he reserves his venom for young female lawyers. “In an era of ‘political correctness’ a charge of gender bias can be devastating politically,” Van Voorhis writes. “History has demonstrated the dangers inherent in such unfounded stigmatizing, ranging from witch-hunting in Salem to Communist hunting by Senator McCarthy. The only effective remedy is a statement of decision that specifically exonerates me.”

In the DA’s filing against the judge, eleven female attorneys offered declarations of how Van Voorhis embarrassed and taunted them in front of juries. Their complaints range from the “Didn’t they teach you that in law school?” line — apparently a favorite of his — to his refusal to limit procedural debates to discussions out of the jury’s earshot. “What would you tell me over here?” the judge is fond of asking. Van Voorhis counters that he’s a proponent of an on-the-record courtroom.

In one declaration, Deputy DA Dana Filkowski complained that in 1997 the judge grilled her for making a simple procedural mistake, then asked, “Am I making you nervous?” At another trial she alerted the bailiff that she might miss an appearance due to a stomach illness, and the judge allegedly retorted through a third party, “Tell her to raise her hand and the bailiff will bring her a trash can.” (She made the court date.)

Recounting the incident later, Filkowski explained why she hadn’t stepped forward sooner: “New prosecutors are not likely to complain about a judge’s inappropriate conduct toward them because of fear that a complaint would jeopardize their permanent hiring,” she said. “I dealt with this problem by covering up my fear of Judge Van Voorhis and my emotions at his treatment of me. I did not want to appear as if I ‘couldn’t take it.'”

Exoneration may not be in the cards for Van Voorhis. In its ruling, the state commission noted, “The judge admitted the longer he stays on the bench, the more he shows his ‘feelings'” — and that’s precisely what is getting him in trouble. “While we find it laudable that Judge Van Voorhis is a court leader when it comes to productivity,” the commission added, “quantity means much less where quality suffers from ill-tempered jurisprudence.”

Still, the disciplinary body has only yanked four judges from the bench over the past decade, and for crimes far worse than badgering fledgling lawyers. Yet even if the judge survives the panel’s justice, beats the DA’s complaint, and gets back to hearing criminal cases, he’s up for reelection next year. For any would-be rival, the complaints against the incumbent will provide ample political fodder.

Van Voorhis apparently believes he’s providing a needed service. “New attorneys need adequate training,” he writes in his filing. “I have publicly stated that the common problems encountered by new attorneys might be minimized or avoided if there was some way of gathering them and presenting them for review as part of their training.

“Whenever I have said so,” he gripes, “listeners seem to only hear criticism.”

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