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Page history last edited by spencer.graves@prodsyse.com 11 years, 5 months ago

Judge James L. Stoelker is currently the presiding judge in Department 18 of the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, CA. Between March 2010 and November 2012, he was ruling on discovery in Merritt v. Mozillo et al.  On Nov. 26, the California Court of Appeals for the sixth district ruled that the Santa Clara County Superior Court should either remove Stoelker from this case or show cause why they shouldn't.  


This ruling came in response to the refusal of the Santa Clara Superior Court to remove Stoelker in response to a petition from the Merritts.  This petition cited Stoelker's extensive previous relationships with the defendants, his failure to disclose this to the plaintiffs and his consistent rulings against the Merritts and in favor of the defendants.  A key standard for recusal is the California Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) 170.1(a)(6)(A)(iii):  "A person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial."   


Beyond CCP 170.1, CCP 170.3(c)(3) says that a judge must reply within 10 days to a request for recusal.  Failure to reply "within the time allowed shall be deemed to have consented to his or her disqualification" [CCP 170.3(c)(4)].  A previous ruling in another case supported this 10-day limit:  “Although a challenged judge has the power to order a statement of disqualification stricken as legally insufficient, that power must be exercised within the ten-day time limit for filing an answer to the statement of disqualification; thus judge who failed to timely strike statement of disqualification as legally insufficient was disqualified”. Lewis v. Superior Court (App. 2 Dist. 1988) 244 Cal. Rptr. 328, 198 Cal. App. 3d 1101


Stoelker replied on the 11th day, denying the motion for recusal.  Stoelker's denial was referred to Santa Cruz county Superior Court judge Timothy R. Volkmann, who confirmed Stoelker's denial of recusal.  Volkmann noted that, "Making decisions against a party is not grounds for disqualification (Code of Civil Procedure Section 170.2(b)).  'A trial court's numerous rulings against a party -- even if erroneous do not establish a charge of judicial bias ...' (People vs. Guerra (2006) 37 Cal. 4th 1067, 1112)."  In this ruling Volkmann failed to mention the 10-day limit and the ruling of the appellate court in Lewis v. Superior Court(App. 2 Dist. 1988) 244 Cal. Rptr. 328, 198 Cal. App. 3d 1101.  The appellate court decision against Stoelker was based on this 10-day rule.  


The defense responded by claiming that the 10-day clock never began, because CCP 170.3(c)(3) says the judge must reply "Within 10 days after filing or service, whichever is later," and the Merritts failed to file the Verified Statement of Disqualification," as witnessed by the fact that said Statement does not appear on the docket of the case.  However, in Judge Stoelker's response, he acknowledges that, "On August 17, 2012, plaintiff Salma Merritt filed and served a statement of disqualification against me."  A hearing on Dec. 24 will consider the discrepancy between (a) the affirmations of both David Merritt and Judget Stoelker that the statement was both filed and served and (b) the absence of the statement from the docket.  


One of Stoekler's most questionably rulings was his insistence that defense attorney James Goldberg be allowed to continue to depose Salma Merritt without witnesses.  In mandating the exclusion of witnesses, Stoelker failed to cite "good cause shown" for the exclusions, in apparent violation of California Code of Civil Procedure section 2025.420(b), which says, "The court, for good cause shown, may make any order that justice requires to protect any party, deponent, or other natural person or organization from unwarranted annoyance, embarrassment, or oppression, or undue burden and expense."  The requirement for citing good cause has been recognized in other court procedures, noting that, 'a court has no power to grant a protective order barring a party from attending another's deposition even on a showing that the deponent will feel "intimidated" by the party's presence at the deposition (Willoughby v. Supp. Ct. (Lui) (1985) 172 Cal. App. 890, 892.'  This is important in this case, because a witness to a previous deposition by Goldberg of Salma Merritt reported that Goldberg was shouting obscenities and physically "manhandling [David Merritt's] father";  this witness, Porter Eugene Johnson, said he had not met the Merritts prior to attending that deposition on the request of a report for several Blogs.  In particular, in spite of "good cause shown" that others should be present and allowed to record the deposition, Stoelker ordered a continuation of the deposition, excluding any audience and any recordings other than a court reporter working for defense attorney Goldberg and without citing "good cause shown".  This is particularly important in this case for several reasons.  First, the defense attorney has already demonstrated unprofessional behavior attempting to entrap the Merritts into saying something he can subsequently quote out of context to support his clients' case.  Judge Stoelker's rulings in this case to require the Merritts to subject themselves to a continuation of this mistreatment without independent checks on Goldberg's behaviors would seem to provide strong evidence of bias.   



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