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Publication Date: Friday, September 26, 2003

Judge Hyde removed from bench Judge Hyde removed from bench (September 26, 2003)

Commission cites 'lack of candor' in rare removal of judge

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Judge Ron Hyde, well known in Pleasanton for his work with Rotary and his Kids in Court program, has been removed from the bench by the Commission on Judicial Performance.

The commission gave its decision Tuesday, two years after the investigation began, saying it was appropriate given Hyde's prior disciplines, his "lack of candor" and concerns regarding his integrity.

"We receive about 900 to 1,000 complaints a year," said Victoria Henley, director and chief counsel of the Commission on Judicial Performance. "Each year fewer than 10 go to formal charges."

Removal of judges is rare, with Hyde being only the 20th in California in 43 years. Since 1960, the state Supreme Court has removed 16 and the commission has removed four, including Hyde.

Discipline is not intended as punishment but to enforce the standards of the judicial system, the commission noted.

"Judge Hyde's persistence in violating the standards of judicial conduct, his inability or unwillingness to learn from prior discipline, and his general approach to ... this proceeding preclude the commission from having any confidence that he will not continue to violate the Code of Judicial Ethics if allowed to remain on the bench," stated the decision dated Sept. 23.

"I can't comment," said Hyde on Wednesday morning. "All I can say is God never gives you more than you can handle. I want to figure out what he wants me to do."

A preliminary investigation on the seven counts began in October 2001. The California Supreme Court appointed three special masters for the hearing, which was held March 24-27 of this year. Their report was submitted to the commission in June, saying they had found misconduct charges against Hyde to be true. The commission held its hearing Aug. 27, and Hyde presented arguments in his behalf and answered questions by the commission members.

The counts included improperly accessing records of the Department of Motor Vehicles; telling a sexually explicit story at a gathering of courthouse employees; choosing a judge to hear his daughter's small claims case; failing to disclose a personal relationship with a defendant who was asking to have her DUI dropped so she could join the service; helping the wife of a defendant obtain marital dissolution papers; and, after being disqualified to preside over a criminal matter, calling a colleague asking that he "back him up" on raising the bail.

The commission found that in the matter of the DMV records, Hyde "violated canons," including upholding the integrity and independence of the judiciary. On the morning in question, he arrived at the courthouse and gave the traffic clerk a license number, asking her to find the driver's record. He subsequently asked the police to "issue a cautionary warning."

Hyde asserted to the commission that his actions were motivated by a concern for public safety but the commission decided his primary motive was anger, because he told the clerk "some idiot cut me off," plus he did not call police immediately. "Judge Hyde acted in bad faith as his purpose in accessing DMV records was personal and not the faithful discharge of judicial duties," the masters reported. The commission noted that he had been publicly censured in 1996 for accessing DMV records in matters not related to court business.

In the incident of the sexually explicit story, the commission concluded that although Hyde's purpose in telling anecdotes was to be entertaining, this conduct could hurt "public esteem for the judicial office."

Regarding his daughter's small claims case, the commission decided he should have allowed the clerk to select a judge. "The issue is not whether the judge's conduct affected the case outcome (which was not alleged), but the propriety of the judge's involvement in his daughter's case."

Again in the count of Hyde helping the wife of a defendant the commission found he came "embroiled in the matter," adding, "His conduct lessens public esteem for the judiciary and underscores the need for the judiciary to remain impartial." His testimony was characterized as "both inconsistent and vague."

The last count involved Judge Hugh Walker, when Hyde telephoned to ask him to "back me up" on a bail increase after he was disqualified from hearing a felony drug charge case after he raised a defendant's bail from $60,000 to $350,000.

"Later that day, Judge Walker went into Judge Hyde's chambers and confronted him," reported the commission. "Judge Walker told Judge Hyde that his telephone call was something that 'you just don't do' and that it had 'put him [Judge Walker] in jeopardy.'" Although Hyde apologized, the masters found that it was self-serving. Hyde also stated in the beginning of the commission proceeding that he did not recall his telephone call to Walker, which the commission said "strains credulity."

Hyde received public censure by the commission in 1996 but was not removed from the bench due to "his assurances that the challenged conduct has ceased and will not resume," according to the commission report. He also received a private admonishment in June 1997, and an advisory letter in February 1998.

The commission recognized that Hyde has been an innovative judge and has concern for his community, but it cited a Supreme Court case to note that this does not mitigate misconduct.

The commission suspended Hyde, effective immediately. The decision becomes final in 30 days, and Hyde can petition for review for 60 days after that, said Henley of the Commission on Judicial Performance.

"I haven't had the chance to talk to my lawyer, but I imagine we are (appealing)," Hyde said.

Hyde was due to retire next month. He had extended his retirement from June in order to get benefits for his wife, Letty, whom he married last November.

Hyde will still receive whatever pension he has earned, said Henley, but he can no longer sit on assignment as many judges do after retirement.

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