Ethics complaint filed against Superior Court judges for allegedly endorsing candidates

Will our city’s judges themselves face judgment?

That’s the question facing two San Francisco Superior Court judges, after an ethics complaint filed Wednesday with the Commission on Judicial Performance alleged they illegally endorsed electoral candidates.

That’s consider a major ethical foul for those who consider black robes the height of fashion.

The usually low-profile June judges election drew a brighter spotlight last month when four members of the Public Defender’s Office opted to run against incumbent judges Cynthia Lee, Curtis Karnow, Jeffrey Ross and Andrew Cheng, who were all appointed by Republican California governors.

The complaint alleges Presiding Judge Teri Jackson and assistant presiding judge Garrett Wong violated California Code of Judicial Ethics when they posted a joint statement to the San Francisco Superior Court website in support of those colleagues.

The judges are not legally allowed to engage in political or campaign activity, and the complaint alleges they violated ethics laws to do so — and on the Superior Court website, no less.

The statement from judges Jackson and Wong reads “We stand firmly behind Judges Andrew Y.S. Cheng, Curtis E.A. Karnow, Cynthia Ming-mei Lee, and Jeffrey S. Ross. Further, as stated in the Canons, we are in a unique position to know the qualifications necessary to serve as a competent jurist.”

They continued, “They are exceptional members of the state judiciary and as judges on the San
Francisco bench have presided over every case with fairness, impartiality and consideration
of every person that comes before them.”

The complaint was filed by local Berniecrat member Winnie Porter. Larry Bush, an ethics watchdog who helped found the Friends of Ethics, said this was a bad look for the accused judges, especially considering the statements in favor of the judicial candidates came on superior court letterhead, on its official website.

The judges, he said, are supposed to be neutral arbiters of justice.

“It’s a misuse of the court’s process for that to be an official court document,” Bush told me. “We don’t know how many judges they were speaking for, or if that was a view the judges took as a group.”

The public defenders running against those incumbent judges, Niki Solis, Kwixuan Maloof, Phoenix Streets and Maria Evangelista, say they’re running because the criminal justice system “is broken.”

“We need a change in our judiciary. We need San Francisco judges who protect San Francisco values. That’s why I’m running,” Solis told me.

The allegedly illegal statement was almost immediately withdrawn from the Superior Court website but survives on the Internet Archive, a handy tool for those seeking to track website changes.

Responding to the allegations, Superior Court spokesperson Ann Donlan simply said “we’re not allowed to comment on any (Commission on Judicial Performance) matters.”

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez covers transportation for the San Francisco Examiner. He also writes the weekly political On Guard column. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter: @FitzTheReporter.

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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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