BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
The state’s judicial disciplinary agency has reprimanded San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak for publicly critiquing an attorney and not disclosing a conversation with her bailiff.
The California Commission on Judicial Performance on Wednesday released a statement about Novak’s admonishment, saying she failed to be “patient, dignified and courteous” to a criminal defense attorney.
However, Novak’s lawyer, James Murphy, says the commission’s decision was “wrong and factually inaccurate and may have a chilling effect on judges going forward.”
Mara Feiger, a San Carlos criminal defense attorney, filed the first complaint against Novak on Oct. 11, 2015. She complained that Novak said in open court that Feiger had “a temper tantrum” and had been unprofessional in other ways during a hearing.
Feiger said she had no choice but to file a complaint against the judge because her disparaging remarks were heard by her client, who then filed a motion to get a new public defender.
“(My client) had no complaints about what I did or did not do, but he said that he could not trust me because the judge called me unprofessional,” Feiger said. “I’ve never felt like I’ve had to complain before,” Feiger said, but this time the judge’s remarks interfered with her relationship with a client.
However, Murphy, the judge’s lawyer, said that Feiger had indeed been unprofessional in court, in both her attitude and in her method of cross examining a witness. Because of how Feiger was questioning the witness, Novak became concerned about the witness’ Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Information from bailiff
The other complaint stemmed from Novak’s decision to keep confidential information she learned from her bailiff.
Novak presided over a motion to dismiss evidence in a criminal trial, and the majority of the hearing concerned whether a sheriff’s sergeant had recorded someone’s arrest. While the sergeant was maintaining that he had not recorded the arrest, the bailiff approached Novak and told her that he had seen the video.
While this was a private conversation between the bailiff and Novak, the judge later told some of the county’s other judges that she believed the sergeant had perjured himself. It’s not known who made the complaint against Novak, but it would had to have been someone at the meeting where Novak offered her opinion about the sergeant, Murphy said.
According to the judicial commission, Novak should have reported the conversation with her bailiff to the defense and prosecution immediately.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Murphy said that Novak stopped the bailiff from speaking to her further, and did not alert the lawyers, as it would have inserted her into the case, which is something the commission also frowns upon.
The commission said Novak should not have told the judges about the potential perjury because the other judges could be hearing other motions in the case, and Novak’s comments could have prejudiced their rulings.
But Murphy said this reprimand of Novak may cause for judges to be looking over their shoulders when speaking with their colleagues.
Murphy said that Novak’s punishment of a public admonishment does not fit the offense. He said similar cases sent to the commission have not resulted in a public admonishment.
Novak’s reprimand is just one of three public admonishments that the judicial commission has issued this year.
The commission in 2016 reviewed Santa Clara Judge Aaron Persky’s sentencing of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, and found no bias on the part of the judge. Persky wasn’t disciplined.