Chief Justice Speaks to Elite Group of Silicon Valley Attorneys and Judges at Secret Social Club Dinner

Sixth District Court of Appeal Associate Justice Patrica Bamattre Manoukian (far right) and divorce attorney BJ Fadem (far left) on May 15, 2024, were among 45 lawyers and judges attending the Inns of Court Dinner at the Adobe Lodge on the Santa Clara University campus. Photo by Susan Bassi.

By Susan Bassi and Fred Johnson

As Santa Clara University law school students looked forward to graduation, California’s Chief Justice traveled to the campus to speak on the state’s court reporter shortage. Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero’s speech was hosted by the local chapter of American Inns of Court, an organization established in 1987 at the university’s law school. The event was held in the Adobe Lodge, an intimate, on-campus, special event venue. According to sources who attended the dinner, the state’s first female Latina justice spoke to a half empty room of mostly white elderly judges and attorneys where the media and public were not invited.

Over three hundred American Inns of Court chapters exist throughout the country, from Washington, DC, to San Diego. These chapters function as an under-the-radar social network for a small group of actors in a legal community. The group’s membership includes public court judges, private judges, select attorneys and a handful of law students. However, the organization is not open to all attorneys. Some lawyers have reported experiencing blacklisting and discrimination during the member selection process.

According to the America’s Inns of Court website, membership requires application, approval, and active participation. Members work in teams known as “pupilage groups” to develop and host monthly programs. Members meet monthly to socialize and mentor one another under the auspices of a legal fraternity that appears to operate as a de facto judge lobbying and recruitment group, according to sources familiar with the organization.

Member dues cover the costs of monthly meals, social activities, and annual dinners, such as the dinner Chief Justice Guerrero attended. Formal dinners are held at Santa Clara University or in a restaurant, three times a year. Judge members are encouraged to invite attorney guests to attend for the purpose of expanding membership.

The stated purpose of the local Inns of Court is to “increase civility, collegiality, professionalism, ethics and advocacy skills within the legal profession.” However, the member handbook also emphasizes socializing within the group before, after, and outside of formal programs.

Social relationships between judges and attorneys create conflicts of interest that are often secreted from the public and non- member attorneys.

Socializing and hors d’ oeuvres are part of the monthly meetings, according to the William A. Ingram Inn of Court Members’ Handbook, obtained by the Vanguard

Judges are required to disclose all professional, social, financial and personal relationships they hold with attorneys representing clients, acting as witnesses or who may be parties to a lawsuit assigned to a judge. Moreover, judges are required to recuse, or remove themselves, from cases where such conflicts of interest are known to exist such that they might cause a person aware of the relationship to doubt a judge’s impartiality.

Vanguard investigation reveals that in Santa Clara County judges are not following the law with respect to conflict-of-interest disclosures and recusals both at the trial court and court of appeal level. When judges fail to make proper disclosures, they stand to violate the law and due process rights of parties and witnesses involved in lawsuits assigned to the judge.

Under California law, including the Code of Judicial Ethics and California Rules of Court, judges are required to disclose to parties and their lawyers if they are members of organizations like the Inns of Court.

Inns of Court Membership Paid with Public and Private Funds

An Inns of Court membership list from 2021-2022, obtained by the Vanguard, reveals judges and government lawyer members used government email accounts for their membership activities and communications.

Private attorneys and big law firms funded and managed the organization’s administrative and accounting operations.

Membership dues for the social club are paid by individual members. However, a public records request to Santa Clara County revealed that Jay Boyarsky, an Inns of Court member and the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Chief of Staff, had his Inns of Court membership dues paid by taxpayers and approved by the Santa Clara County District Attorney, Jeff Rosen.

Prosecutor Jay Boyarsky, Chief of Staff for the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office had his membership dues to Inns of Court Approved by DA Jeff Rosen and paid by Santa Clara County taxpayers.

The Vanguard’s public records request to the court and the county, which remains pending, seeks to determine how many other government attorneys and judges had their social membership in the Inns of Court organization funded by taxpayers.

Attorneys Daniel W. Ballesteros of the Hoge Fenton law firm (left) and Jonahtan Joannides (right) at May 15, 2024 Inns of Court Dinner at Santa Clara University. Screenshot from TikTok Video @SusanBassi

Inns of Court Guest List

Attendees at this year’s  Inns of Court dinner included Justices Patrica Bamattre Manoukian, Mary Greenwood, and Cynthia Lie from the Sixth District Court of Appeal.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judges Lori Pegg, Helen Williams, Hector Ramon, Sheila Deen, as well as retired judges who went on to private judging and arbitration including Leslie Nichols now of ADR, James Stoelker (JAMS), James Kleinberg (JAMS), and Vanessa Zecher who formally retired from the family court bench on February 29, 2024, were also in attendance.

Government lawyers in attendance included Damon Silver from the county’s Public Defender’s Office and Sylvia Perez McDonald from the county’s Independent Defense Office (IDO).

Private divorce attorney BJ Fadem was also present to meet the Chief Justice. Fadem has been regularly appointed, or assigned, by Inns of Court member judges as minors counsel for children whose parents are involved in a divorce or custody case in the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

Such assignments by Inns of Court member judges who are not assigning non- member attorneys at a similar rate, or disclosing conflicts of interests to the parties in cases where the lawyer is assigned, has a bad optic to the public.

In addition to monthly meetings and thrice a year dinner, Inns of Court groups are expected to meet informally “throughout the membership year.”

Also present at the Inns of Court dinner was Jonanthan Joannides, an attorney who helped organize the event and the Chief Justice’s visit.

According to LinkedIn, Joannides worked as a law clerk for the Santa Clara County District attorney in 2015 and was admitted to the California State Bar a year later. He clerked for Justice Manoukian’s husband.

Joannides was in the Inns of Court pupillage group with Judge James Towery, BJ Fadem and Sherry Diamond, the attorney employed by the local bar who the Vanguard previously reported had been exposed for shredding complaints about unfairness in the courts.

Santa Clara University Law School Dean, Michael Kaufman, officially greeted guests for the annual dinner held at the university’s  Adobe Lodge.

BJ Fadem, Judge James Towery, Judge Peter Socrates Manoukian and other Inns of Court members have been long time adjunct professors at Santa Clara University.

One of Six Judge- Attorney Teams in the Local Chapter of American Inns of Court

Secret Inns and Outs of Court  

Inns of Court members meet monthly and are divided into pupillage groups that perform “programs,” or skits, for other members on a rotating basis.

Divorce attorney BJ Fadem was listed in the 2021-2022 pupillage group led by controversial judge James Towery. Towery led the Bench-Bar-Media-Police Committee (BBMP), which was shuttered following exposure by the Vanguard in 2023.

Vanguard reporters and photographers were present at the May 15 Inns of Court Dinner where the Chief Justice Patricia Guerreo spoke to approximately forty-five members and their guests, but no other photographers or reporters were present.

Inns of Court has a policy that prohibits the photographing of monthly meetings and dinners. This year marks the first time the meetings were captured by the press and reported online and on social media. In less than a week the videos published online have collectively garnered over a million views and comments on YouTube, Tik Tok and Twitter.

Commentors have expressed outrage over the appearance of impropriety such groups as American Inns of Court hold when it comes to California’s modern judiciary.

American Inns of Court policy prohibits photographing events where public court judges socialize with attorneys.

Credit for Good Time Served without a Court Reporter

Inns of Court meetings offer attorneys MCLE credits (Mandatory Continuing Legal Education). Yet, despite the Chief Justice speaking, a dinner paid for by Inns of Court members and taxpayers, and the education credits the event offered, only 45 lawyers and judges attended.  Sources speaking off the record called the attendance figures “embarrassing” given the presence of the state’s most prominent judge.

Litigants and non-attorney members have expressed they would have been interested to hear what the Chief Justice had to say about the court reporter shortage that has been widely reported on and is a matter of public interest.

Observers noted a significant judicial disconnect between the swanky social club setting and the reality of modern-day courts where the court reporter shortage has created havoc particularly for middle- class and the state’s poorest court users.

California’s Chief Justice did not respond to the Vanguard’s request for comment.

Inns of Court MCLE credits and sign- in sheet from May 15, 2024 Dinner. Photo by Susan Bassi

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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