For years I had heard the complaints about the family court system – judges ignoring evidence of abuse, putting children into the custody of their abusers, lack of legal representation for some parties but not others, extravagant court fees, judges making capricious decisions and changing the rules of the game.
I heard these complaints from enough quarters that I could not ignore them but, having witnessed them myself this week in the case of Benoit v. Gilson, it brings them home to a whole new level.
This is the seventh year that the Vanguard has covered the court system in Yolo County, and, while critical of the courts and the Yolo County District Attorney, what I have witnessed here is a series of things that never could have been perpetrated in the criminal system.
Closing down the court: We will litigate this matter perhaps as soon as next week. From my perspective, I believe the decision to close down the court to the public was improper.
In the court transcript, Judge Arvid Johnson reasons, “The concern I have, and the reason I’m treating this a little like a juvenile at this point, I would like to ask county counsel and the CPS to inquire and investigate whether or not CPS should be involved and whether or not a protective warrant should issue for the return of the children.”
My view is that closing down the court to public scrutiny is an extreme measure. There was nothing that came up that warranted closing the court down. Nothing sensitive was discussed. The matter itself doesn’t even directly involve the children, as Mr. Gilson is accused of committing domestic violence on his ex-wife and Ms. Benoit, but not on the children.
Holding a hearing without counsel for Ms. Benoit: On July 19, Judge Johnson allowed a hearing to occur in which Ms. Benoit’s attorney was not properly noticed and was not in attendance. Had this been a criminal matter, the case would have been re-scheduled. If Kim Robinson was in the wrong, she would have been admonished, but the case would not have proceeded without her attendance.
This is not a trivial matter. First, Judge Johnson changed Judge Kathleen White’s orders without Ms. Robinson there to have the opportunity to object. Second, because he ruled on a matter before the court, he then deemed Ms. Robinson’s attempt to use her Penal Code section 170.6 peremptory challenge (to Johnson as judge) untimely.
Mr. Gilson has not been represented by counsel until now: One of the big problems in family court is that there is no right to counsel. That means that often the victim, often a woman with less economic means in general, is left without representation. That asymmetry leads to many rulings against the person without counsel. In this case it was Mr. Gilson without counsel until this week when Brian Pakpour represented him.
How did CPS and county counsel suddenly get involved?: From the start, Deputy DA Tiffany Susz wanted to order Claire Benoit to court and potentially charge her for parental abduction in this case. Up until now, Judge White, while troubled by Ms. Benoit’s lack of appearance in court, was more interested in proceeding with the custody decisions in this case.
Suddenly on Tuesday, we had the appearance of CPS, Yolo County Counsel, and potential counsel for the minor children – all who seemed to be in league with the deputy DA and Judge Johnson.
As Judge Johnson put it, “I would like to ask county counsel and the CPS to inquire and investigate whether or not CPS should be involved and whether or not a protective warrant should issue for the return of the children.”
He added, “She is clearly in contempt of court. She’s refused to make herself available. She has been ordered back. She is basically hiding in different places in Europe. And my question is whether or not that is grounds in and of itself for a protective warrant for picking up the children and returning the children. I believe that it is, but I don’t know, so I would like CPS and county counsel to look into that.”
The judge here has signaled that he has already made up his mind. The question is whether the deputy DA has worked behind the scenes to maneuver the case back into her favor or whether the judge is doing this on his own.
Judge Johnson undoes Judge White’s arrangements: That leads us to this: in June, Judge White arranged for a Skype deposition for Claire Benoit and an October trial, leaving the issue of Benoit’s appearance for another point in time. Judge Johnson has now undone everything that Judge White did.
The Vanguard asked some experts whether this was proper, and, from a legal standpoint, Judge Johnson seems to be within in his rights, but many are baffled that he, as a visiting judge, is completely reversing the decisions that Judge White very carefully put into place.
One of the big questions that comes up here is judicial accountability. There is very limited accountability for judges in the first place – and for good reason, as we want judges to be able to make decisions without fear of recourse.
However, Judge Johnson, as a retired judge, is basically making money on top of his retirement pension and doing so with absolutely no accountability whatsoever for his decisions.
Kim Robinson has indicated that she will file a writ with the appellate court in hopes of undoing some of the damage here, and perhaps the appellate court can remove this case from Judge Johnson’s purview and give it back to Judge White, who was being measured and even-handed in her approach.
—David M. Greenwald reporting