A lawsuit filed by the Pasadena Republican Club (PRC) against a public service group run predominantly by local judges and other legal professionals has been causing havoc at the downtown Los Angeles office of the US District Court. The case hasn’t even gotten to trial, but in the last three weeks alone, half the court’s 19 active judges have recused themselves from presiding over the matter.
The suit was filed after the Western Justice Center (WJC) at the last minute canceled a speaking engagement the PRC had paid for at Maxwell House, a historic cottage on the campus of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Maxwell House is owned by the City of Pasadena but leased for a dollar a month to WJC for “public purposes.”
WJC reportedly told the Club it did not realize until the afternoon of the April 20, 2017 event that the speaker, Dr. John Eastman, besides being a former law school dean, was president of an organization opposed to gay marriage, a position anathema to WJC’s mission.
PRC wants the court to declare that the WJC and the city violated its free speech, prevent WJC from deciding what events are held at Maxwell House, and order some monetary damages.
WJC is a 32-year-old non-profit formed by “a group of visionary judges, lawyers and civic leaders” whose mission is “building a more civil, peaceful society where differences are valued,” according to its website. Its staff and board of directors include at least 11 active judges, including five on the Ninth Circuit and three on the US District Court for the Central District in Los Angeles, where the case is being heard. This is the first time the organization has been sued in federal court.
By deadline, neither WSJ nor Pasadena had responded to requests for comment.
When the case filed last November, PRC noted that two Central District judges were on the WJC’s board and might therefore have a “pecuniary interest in the outcome of this case.” WJC made a similar disclosure with respect to its insurance carriers.
The case was assigned to Judge S. James Otero and to a magistrate for discovery purposes. The magistrate quickly recused himself for reasons not made clear in the docket, but Otero stayed on during pre-trial motions. Pasadena moved for summary judgment while WJC moved to dismiss part of PRC’s complaint. In late May, the PRC filed in opposition to both motions.
On May 31, Otero said the motions were “suitable for disposition without oral argument” but after that, the court went dark. In early July, Otero scheduled a phone conference with the parties. According to court records, Otero for the first time disclosed his “personal and professional relationships with parties related to both sides of the litigation.” In particular, he expressed his concern about his handling the matter due to his “personal relationship with some of the board members of WJC.” The parties said they were willing to proceed despite this and signed a waiver to that effect.
“Despite this waiver,” Otero said a couple days later, “I remain convinced that the totality of my personal and professional connections to the litigants is unique. These deep connections may raise doubts in the public’s mind as to the fairness of this Court.”
He said it would be a disservice to the parties to “impose such a shadow on this litigation. There are other judges that sit in the Central District of California that do not have the totality of the connections that I have to the litigants in this matter.” With that, he recused himself and the clerk reassigned the case to Judge Christina A. Snyder.
Federal rules do not specifically require a judge to disqualify him or herself merely because they know some of the parties. But while Otero may have been acting cautiously, he was wrong about the Central District. Two days after Otero bailed, Snyder also recused herself. The case was then given to Judge Dean D. Pregerson, who immediately sent it back for reassignment, whereupon it landed in Judge R. Gary Klausner’s courtroom.
Two weeks later Klausner recused himself and the case was given Judge Percy Anderson, who also recused himself and sent it back to the clerk. The same thing then happened with Judges Dale S. Fischer, Fernando M. Olguin (who is a WJC director), John A. Kronstadt and Michael W. Fitzgerald.
The recusals appear to transcend partisan politics. Snyder and Pregerson are Clinton appointees while Otero, Klausner, Anderson and Fischer were appointed by George W. Bush. Olguin, Kronstadt and Fitzgerald are Obama appointees.
Tom Caso, attorney for PRC, said he was not surprised so many judges recused themselves, as so many have connections to the WJC, though he said “we hope that they were not aware of the discriminatory activities of WJC that are alleged in the complaint.”
On Aug. 5, the Ninth Circuit, the senior court to the Central District, stepped in. Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas designated one his colleagues, Senior US 9th Circuit Judge Wallace Tashima, to “sit with the Central District of California on an as-needed basis” through at least the end of the year.
Caso said he was satisfied with Tashima “if this means that the plaintiffs will get their day in court.”
Whether that solution will work remains to be seen. Five of the Ninth Circuit’s judges are directors or staff members of WJC, including Dorothy W. Nelson, the founder of Western Justice Center.