SAN JOSE -- Like most judges, Diane Ritchie shies away from discussing her cases. But facing a tough re-election battle, she boasted in a campaign video about how deftly she handled a trust dispute, suggesting she succeeded in uniting a quarreling family.
She may come to regret it: Experts are panning her decision to drag a judicial decision into the political arena, and a man involved in the case said Ritchie's version simply isn't true. He's accusing her in an ethics complaint of misleading voters.
The complaint against Ritchie, the first sitting judge in Santa Clara County to face a political challenge in 16 years, was filed by James W. Martin Jr. of Hollister with the state Commission on Judicial Performance. Though Ritchie doesn't name his family, Martin claims she violated the Judicial Code of Ethics by publicly commenting in detail about it during the five-minute video, and by making false or misleading statements to promote her campaign. Ritchie should apologize, he said, and remove the clip titled "Why I Show Respect to Both Sides in Court," from YouTube and her campaign website.
Martin's former lawyer, Christine Breen, agreed, saying the judge did not heal the family discord, as her video suggests, nor should she have sought to do so.
"A judge is supposed to be an impartial evaluator of evidence, not get caught up in the familial relationship," Breen said.
Ritchie declined to comment. But shortly after this newspaper inquired, the video was removed from her website. Her political consultant, Rich Robinson, said that was just part of the web administrator's normal "tweaking" of the site.
"There is nothing wrong with the video or the message," Robinson said. However, he added that it will not be reposted. "We don't want to do anything that is in the least way controversial," he said
Ritchie issued her judgment in the case two years ago and made her last ruling recently. But continuing strife over the financial records of the trust could put the case before another judge. The Commission on Judicial Performance will review Martin's complaint. Penalties can range from a private advisory letter to a public admonishment to removal from office.
Regardless of the outcome of the complaint, Harvey Englander, a Southern California political consultant who has handled judicial campaigns and is not involved with Ritchie or her re-election rivals, said the judge's decision to cite details of a case in a campaign piece is highly unorthodox. Ritchie appears in the video seated on the bench and wearing her black robe, flanked by a statue of Lady Justice.
"This is a first," Englander said. "Judges talk about how they run their court, how everyone gets a fair hearing, the intricacies of the law, their endorsements and their areas of expertise. But talking about one particular case is considered unseemly."
Some of Ritchie's supporters dismissed Martin's complaint as sour grapes because he and two of his sisters lost their bid to immediately recover half their father's trust, as they claimed he intended, rather than after their mother's death. He prevailed, however, in preventing his two other sisters from sharing in the trust.
In fact, lawyer Richard A. Gorini, who represented Martin's mother, said the video "accurately represents what happened at trial and thereafter." However, he added that he does not know if her decision actually produced a rapprochement.
Martin doesn't deny he is upset with the judge's decision but notes his former lawyer, Breen, shares his concerns about the video.
"I think it was improper of Judge Ritchie to comment on the case," Breen said.
In the video, Ritchie says: "They knew I respected them, they knew I had compassion for them, I would do everything in my power to make that living trust express the intentions of their husband and father. And I think without that, my decision would not have the power that it did."
Ritchie also suggests in the video that she went the extra mile to hold several meetings after the case, because she wanted to "make sure this (judgment) was not a cause of disturbance in that family." But lawyers for both sides said the meetings were actually standard court hearings.
Martin takes umbrage at the judge's assertion in the video that "one of the sons" was "very angry," which she said she understood was because of his grief over his father's death, at age 83. But Martin states in the complaint that he is the only son and finds the comment "derogatory and very offensive."
"Any anger I may have displayed was not from the grief of my father's death, but instead from the frustration that the trustee was refusing to execute or honor the trust," he wrote in the complaint. "And now as the case progresses, we must remain concerned for any damage that may have been done by these ongoing public misstatements."
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.