Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad has drafted a letter to Judge Janet Gaard, the current presiding judge in Yolo County, requesting that Judge Steven Basha be removed from presiding over juvenile dependency court. He told the Vanguard in a phone conversation on Monday that he hopes his colleagues will sign onto it, but he doesn’t know if they will.
He said if they do not, he will likely send something on anyway.
Mr. Rexroad, as he lays out in the letter that the Vanguard published Monday (see here), has some legitimate concerns regarding Judge Basha and, more broadly, the dependency court.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Rexroad will ask his colleagues to issue a blanket objection to Judge Basha hearing juvenile dependency cases under Penal Code section 170.6, providing the right to challenge a particular judge and have the judge disqualified. He contends that the judge has made statements indicating his bias in favor of reunification, which Mr. Rexroad believes is often not in the best interests of children in Yolo County.
Mr. Rexroad argues, “Judge Basha relegates social workers to a secondary role in Juvenile Dependency Court that impairs their ability to serve their vulnerable clients.”
He adds, “Compounding this problem, in a County initiated Foster Care Retaliation study conducted last year, Foster Parents strongly believed there is a ‘pervasive bias’ by Judge Basha and the court system towards birth parents and reunification.
“Those interviewed state that over his years on the bench, the Judge ‘has been outrageously pro reunification, and takes actions that negatively impact Foster Families.’ Foster Parents told investigators that the Court must ‘stop giving birth parents so many chances to fail.’”
All of these are legitimate concerns – however, our concern is whether the Board of Supervisors level is the appropriate venue to determine any of this.
For his part, Mr. Rexroad believes that it is. In our phone conversation he explained that the county is often a party to dependency hearings and therefore has the power to use 170.6 to disqualify Judge Basha. Judge Basha, he argues in his letter, has expressed bias and he pointed to the judge’s comments at a 2014 dinner honoring foster parents – I was also in attendance – as further evidence.
“I personally witnessed him … stand in front of a dinner honoring foster parents and state that, in the end, he was going to thank the foster parents and give the children back to their biological parents,” Mr. Rexroad said.
“The biological parents and the children in dependency court deserve a fair and open process. His public statements indicate judicial bias and cast his administration of the juvenile dependency court in a troubling light that, in my judgment, demonstrates the need for a new judge in this role,” Supervisor Rexroad wrote in the letter to Judge Gaard.
He said that Judge Gaard never responded to a meeting request with himself and fellow Supervisor Jim Provenza. He told the Vanguard that people are not going to like this meeting, that it will be uncomfortable for Judge Basha, but he is tired of waiting.
While I personally agree with Mr. Rexroad here, as I have consistently had problems with the court system erring on the side of reunification when it was clearly putting vulnerable children at risk – I chafe at the idea that the Board of Supervisors is the appropriate body to put political pressure on the courts.
The Vanguard asked longtime Yolo County Judge Dave Rosenberg for his take, but the judge declined comment, citing the Judicial Code of Ethics.
Instead, the Vanguard was referred to Shawn Landry, the Court Executive Officer for Yolo Superior Court, who forwarded a letter sent to the County Administrator’s Office (CAO):
“The goal of juvenile dependency proceedings is to protect children and preserve or reunify families whenever possible. Juvenile dependency hearings are especially challenging because, by law, they are not open to the public (to protect the confidentiality of the affected children and parents), and, also by law, every reasonable effort must be made to reunify the dependent child with his or her parents.
“The Judicial Branch of government’s role is to provide neutral courtrooms for disputes between litigants. Judges, as Constitutional Officers, make many decisions every day about sensitive issues that affect the lives of those litigants. Inevitably, any decision will satisfy some and will not satisfy others.
“To maintain neutrality and the integrity of the judicial process, judges are prohibited by statute and the Judicial Code of Ethics from commenting about cases that come before the court. (Issues about rulings in individual cases can only be presented to the court in hearings on those cases, whether in the trial court or on appeal.) However, we always give serious consideration to any concerns registered about the court system. To avoid any misunderstanding it is best if we receive in writing specifics about the nature of the concern. The Court cannot give legal advice, however, so you may wish to talk to your attorney, the County Counsel, about ways in which your concerns may be addressed.”
In my view, Mr. Rexroad’s actions set a dangerous potential precedent that the county could get involved in pushing for the removal of a judge, in other situations, who might be perceived as too lenient on defendants or rules the wrong way on a high profile case.
We have a separation of powers for a reason – and the need for judges to be separated from the politics of the day is paramount to the concept of judicial independence. We want a judge to weigh in on a specific case based on the law, not on political pressure from citizens or another elected body.
Mr. Rexroad cited an incident in which 170.6 was used in a blanket way by the DA’s office, in which the judge was removed from the criminal court and placed into civil court for a time. But, in our view, as we have seen a few of these in the last eight years, it often biases not only the sitting judge but other judges to be fearful to take on the DA’s office.
While we happen to believe that Mr. Rexroad is correct in his objection to Judge Basha stating his opinion on dependency cases in a public venue, the recourse here is problematic.
He asked me if I had a better solution – while I do not have one to the immediate situation, I think we need to re-examine not only dependency courts but also family courts, and make the paramount and overriding consideration be the welfare of the children.
That requires us to change laws at the state level, which I think will avoid the Board of Supervisors having to put their hands on the scales at the county level.
Again, I fully agree with Mr. Rexroad’s concern, I just worry that his remedy might be worse than the disease.
—David M. Greenwald reporting