• Prosecutors Involved in Case-Related Media Projects Get Reinstated By California Supreme Court
  • September 24, 2008
  • Law Firm: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Chicago Office
  • Haraguchi v. Superior Court, 43 Cal.4th 706, 182 P.3d 579 (2008)

    Hollywood v. Superior Court, 43 Cal.4th 721, 182 P.3d 590 (2008)

    Brief Summary
    California appellate courts must review recusal holdings for abuses of discretion, even in capital cases. The trial courts did not abuse their discretion in finding that two prosecutors’ case-related media projects did not create conflicts warranting recusal.

    Complete Summary
    The California Supreme Court reinstated prosecutors in two criminal cases who had been recused by the appellate court under Section 1424 of the California Penal Code. Section 1424 allows for recusal when evidence points to a conflict of interest that would render a fair trial unlikely. The California Supreme Court sided with the trial courts and held that the Court of Appeal in both cases had not reviewed the evidence under the appropriate abuse of discretion standard.

    In Haraguchi v. Superior Court, defendant Haraguchi was charged with raping an intoxicated person. Haraguchi sought recusal of the prosecutor, Joyce Dudley, because she had recently published a novel about a female prosecutor’s handling of a case involving the rape of an intoxicated person. The trial court found the similarities between the book and the case to be coincidental and therefore found no conflict of interest. The Court of Appeal, however, recused Dudley because her interest in increasing book sales presented a conflict, and because the views of the heroine in the book, which the court imputed to Dudley, also presented conflicts.

    The California Supreme Court reversed and reinstated Dudley. The court, deferring to the trial court’s findings, held there was no financial conflict of interest. The key findings were that the book was not factually based on the case, and that the timing of publication was not influenced by the trial date. The court further noted that Dudley had little to gain by pressing forward with such a factually dissimilar case beyond its own merits. Finally, the court acknowledged that the low profiles of both the book and the case were relevant to the trial court’s finding of no conflict. The court flatly rejected the notion that a fictional character’s views could be imputed to the author. “The trial court’s role, and the Court of Appeal’s, and ours, is to examine the record for evidence of a disqualifying conflict, not to act as literary critic,” the court stated. Id. at 588.

    The court also addressed the second prong of the Section 1424 test: whether any conflict was so serious as to make a fair trial unlikely. This prong of the test, the court held, was not met because, once again, the low profile of the book and limited publicity it had received provided the trial court substantial evidence to support the conclusion that there was no likelihood of an unfair trial.

    Finally, the court offered a note of caution against reading too much into its holding, stating “we do not condone actions that place a prosecutor’s literary career ahead of, or at odds with, her fealty to the fair and evenhanded pursuit of justice and the community interest.” Id. at 589.

    In Hollywood v. Superior Court, defendant Hollywood was charged, inter alia, with murder and kidnapping. Hollywood moved for recusal of prosecutor Zonen because, prior to Hollywood’s capture, Zonen had, in hopes of capturing Hollywood, given confidential case files to the makers of a major motion picture based on the murder. The trial court found that Zonen had no financial conflict of interest because he had received no consideration for his role in the movie and because neither Zonen’s disclosure of confidential information, nor his asserted interest in burnishing his own legacy, were impermissible conflicts under Section 1424.

    The Court of Appeal, however, recused Zonen, both because of the seriousness of Hollywood’s case (he was facing the death penalty) and because the court did not want to “embolden other prosecutors to assist the media in the public vilification of a defendant.” Id. at 595.

    The California Supreme Court reversed and reinstated Zonen. The court held that the abuse of discretion standard of review was appropriate, even in capital cases, and held that the trial court had not abused its discretion.

    Regarding Zonen’s disclosure of confidential information, the court noted that a violation of law does not automatically warrant recusal. Rather, such a violation must make a fair trial unlikely. The court, in line with the trial court, held that Zonen’s fear of being punished for disclosing the files was not likely to lead him to treat Hollywood unfairly.

    Hollywood further argued for recusal because the movie offered a distorted portrayal of him. The court, however, accepted the trial court’s findings that Zonen had required the filmmakers to portray Hollywood as accurately as possible and that Zonen’s main motive was the capture of Hollywood rather than to prejudice the proceeding. In fact there were no pending proceedings when Zonen gave the files to the filmmakers.

    The court also cited Zonen’s motive (i.e. capturing Hollywood) in rebuttal to Hollywood’s argument that Zonen sought to profit from the movie by elevating the status of the case in order to gain laurels. Noting that every attorney involved in a high profile case will have an interest in burnishing his or her legacy, the court stated that this problem is not one recusal could solve.

    Finally, the court, despite reinstating Zonen, labeled his conduct “highly inappropriate and disturbing,” and noted that this conduct was possibly sanctionable in other ways. Id. at 600.

    Significance of Opinion
    These opinions highlight the significant amount of deference afforded to California trial courts that hear recusal motions. In fact, the California Supreme Court noted that it would not have been an abuse of discretion for the trial court in Haraguchi to have reached the opposite conclusion and recused Dudley. In both cases, the Supreme Court made clear that independent appellate review, as opposed to abuse of discretion review, would not likely reduce the rate of error in recusal rulings - especially given that the trial court, being more familiar with the facts, is in a better position to make such judgments.