Judge Dread Takes the Stand 

Jurist Bruce Van Voorhis is a model of efficiency but has the tongue of a serpent. The latter may be his downfall.

Stacey Brock stepped into the haven of Superior Court Judge Bruce Van Voorhis as a young, inexperienced deputy district attorney with just three months on the job. She left it as one of his casualties. It was January 2001, and Brock's superiors at the Contra Costa County DA's office had entrusted her with a can't-lose DUI jury trial. All she had to do was lay out the evidence and stick around for the guilty verdict.

It didn't work out that way. After the defense lawyer entered a routine, but rarely approved, motion to suppress statements made by his client on the night in question, Brock immediately objected.

"Overruled," the judge said.

Brock was stunned. All of her law books told her such statements were admissible. She respectfully brought the judge's attention to relevant cases and statutes. "You don't need them," the judge shot back. When she pressed further, she later recalled, Van Voorhis leveled an icy stare and asked, "Are we through?"

The young prosecutor then moved to introduce the results of the defendant's sobriety tests -- again, textbook stuff. She began with the "horizontal gaze nystagmus test," better known as the follow-the-pen-with-your-eyes exam. But Van Voorhis ruled that Brock would need an expert witness to interpret the test for the jury -- and a patrol cop wouldn't do. Again, Brock was bewildered. A ruling from the state Supreme Court five years earlier clearly stated that police officers could provide such testimony.

Confused, but not defeated, she called the arresting officer to the stand. She asked the cop if the defendant at any time had trouble taking instructions.

A loud voice from behind the bench interrupted her. As Brock recalled it, the face of the 53-year-old jurist flushed in anger, his body tensed, and his voice turned sarcastic. According to the trial transcripts, he told Brock that it didn't matter if the defendant took instructions well. A debate between judge and prosecutor volleyed for a few minutes, with Brock repeatedly asking to settle the matter quietly at the bench, and the judge repeatedly refusing. In the end, the irritated judge ordered her to turn to the jury box and admit that her line of questioning meant nothing.

"Are you ordering me to tell the jury it doesn't matter?" asked Brock, humiliated.

"Yes," he said.

Brock swallowed her pride, turned to a juror she deemed sympathetic, and said, "Apparently, this doesn't really matter."

She still managed a guilty verdict, but as she gathered her things to leave afterward, Van Voorhis remained to offer some advice: Always prepare for the unexpected in the courtroom, he told Brock. Judges are human, and they can rule in strange and unpredictable ways. Good prosecutors think on their feet and never lose their cool. Overall, Van Voorhis added, he was impressed that she hung in there.

But before leaving, Brock later alleged, the judge also said something that suggested he'd neglected his sworn duties to neutrally uphold the law. "I knew you were entitled to admit those statements," she recalled him saying. "But I kept them out to see how you would handle yourself."

The judge's attempts -- this wasn't the first -- to dole young prosecutors a life lesson recently backfired. Citing Brock's case and others, a panel from the state Commission on Judicial Performance in September ruled Van Voorhis guilty of several acts of judicial misconduct. The full eleven-member commission -- three judges, two lawyers, and six civilian gubernatorial appointees -- will meet in San Francisco next month to determine the judge's punishment, which could conceivably include removing him from the bench.

The panel's ruling was based largely on his chilly courtroom demeanor, but county prosecutors have taken things a step further, arguing that the judge is biased against the DA's office -- its young female attorneys in particular. The office has filed a motion asking the Superior Court to bar Van Voorhis from hearing criminal cases. While the controversial jurist awaits judgment, he has been exiled from his Walnut Creek pulpit to a tiny traffic court on the edge of Concord, where he churns out rulings on questionable left turns and parking-lot fender benders. The prosecutors hope he stays there. "His behavior has gotten so out of control it's affecting justice," says Doug Pipes, a senior deputy district attorney who led the office's investigation.

Van Voorhis is not without defenders. Even his critics admit that he has an exceptionally bright legal mind and is the taskmaster who boasts the county's cleanest docket. In the overwhelmed criminal court system, he is one of very few judges who keep the wheels greased, mowing through cases so quickly that he often asks the supervising judge for more. His supporters also say that new prosecutors who are unfamiliar with Van Voorhis' zeal often mistake his stern diction for unfairness.

Defense attorney David Pastor has tried more than a hundred cases in Van Voorhis' court over the past fifteen years, and was among six lawyers who testified before the state commission on his behalf. "The DA perceives Van Voorhis as biased against them, but that's simply not true," Pastor says. "When they complain about the judge, they're really complaining about his demeanor, his personality. But if they have a winning argument, they'll win. The judge is a fair man, there's no doubt. But they make the mistake of taking the judge's sternness personally."

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