COLUMN BEGINS HERE
The race for District 2 supervisor has focused primarily on whether voters want a third pro-development vote on the Board of Supervisors or whether they want a majority of smart-growth county supervisors. This is a reasonable assessment of the major difference between John Phillips, who is getting lots of money from developers and builders, and Ed Mitchell, who draws support from conservation and environmental groups. But it fails to look into the character of either candidate. I do not know Ed Mitchell, but I have known Judge Phillips for more than thirty years, and I am concerned about certain traits he has displayed in two prior positions of authority: assistant district attorney and Monterey County Superior Court judge.
Judge Phillips was my boss in the District Attorney’s Office before he became a judge. The DA’s Office was a boys’ club when I was hired in 1981. There were just a few women attorneys. The men were in control and Judge Phillips was the alpha male. Some would say that most men who are his age (70 and up) have a history of sexist remarks in their past, because “that was their generation.” I am nearly 70 and I believe that most men in my generation were not as blatantly sexist as many of the men my age with whom I worked in the DA’s office. And Assistant District Attorney Phillips was the leader of that pack.
As a judge, John Phillips was very concerned about the rights of the criminal defendant – rightly so. However, he often did not show the same concern for victims or witnesses who came to court to testify – particularly female victims and witnesses. The case that stays with me involved a gang drive-by shooting in South County. As the deputy district attorney prosecuting one of the gang defendants in the car, I had subpoenaed to court a teenaged girl who had also been in the car at the time and could identify who had done the shooting and who was driving. With the help of an investigator I was able to persuade the girl and her mother to come to court, so the girl could testify against one of the defendants. She was our only cooperative eyewitness. Naturally, both she and her mother were terrified of retaliation by gang members if she took the witness stand. Somehow, she summoned the courage to be sworn in and to identify the defendant as one of the participants in the shooting. She testified before Judge Phillips, who turned to her at the end of her testimony and criticized her in front of a courtroom full of people for what she had worn to court.
In my eyes, the witness had on a clean, pressed, age-appropriate outfit with several layers on top, including a transparent blouse that was over another opaque top. But to Judge Phillips, it was not her courage in coming forward in the face of certain violence against her and her family that he noted. Rather he chewed her out for wearing clothing that he felt was suggestive. The girl left the witness stand in tears. She told me that the judge made her feel like a prostitute. A male deputy sheriff sitting in court who was waiting for another case commented that Judge Phillips was way out of line in the way that he had humiliated the young witness.
This incident was troubling when it happened, and it is still troubling because it makes me wonder whether Phillips would treat a young woman who appears before the Board of Supervisors in the same manner. Maybe he has matured since leaving the bench and establishing the Rancho Cielo youth camp but can we take the risk that a candidate with a history of sexist remarks to and about females has become enlightened and is no longer disparaging of girls and women? More than half of Judge Phillips’ constituents are female, and many women and girls appear to speak before the Board of Supervisors. Will their comments be taken seriously, and will they be given a fair shake if Judge Phillips is a supervisor, or will he focus on their style of dress or find some other sex-based reason to put them down?
My concern is based in part on Judge Phillips’ reaction to a written complaint filed against him with the Commission on Judicial Performance by the young girl and her mother. An investigation was conducted by the commission. I was contacted and asked if I had witnessed any inappropriate treatment by the judge. The defendant’s attorney was contacted too. I was told the entire investigation was confidential and that I should feel free to speak truthfully. I told the investigator that I had indeed witnessed the judge browbeat the young witness about her clothing choice and that she had felt degraded by his treatment and told me she would never return to court to testify. The defense attorney warned me against being honest with the investigator, because Monterey County is small and the legal community is even smaller.
After the investigation was concluded, a year-end report of the Commission was issued that indicated that a Monterey County Superior Court judge had received a letter of reprimand for inappropriate comments to a female witness. While no case name was cited, it seemed clear to me that Judge Phillips had been reprimanded. Sometime after the report came out, another Superior Court judge came to me at a Bar Association meeting and told me that Judge Phillips hated me because I had “beefed” him to the Judicial Commission several times. Never mind that I had not ever “beefed” Judge Phillips to the commission – I had just answered the investigator’s questions honestly – from that time on I knew that I would not get a fair shake in his courtroom.
What is most disturbing about Judge Phillips’ reaction to a complaint about his performance as a judge is that he blamed the witness and the prosecutor who presented the witness for getting him in trouble. He apparently never saw anything wrong in his mistreatment of the terrified young woman. Furthermore, he jumped to the wrong conclusion about me – based on no evidence – that I had filed complaints against him – and then he shared this mistaken belief with at least one other judge. He never confronted me directly with these false assumptions, but knowing his belief that I had “told on him,” I made every effort to avoid holding any hearings or trials in his courtroom, especially any that involved women or girls as victims or witnesses.
The negative traits that I have witnessed in Judge Phillips – sexist remarks, poor treatment of a witness, inability to acknowledge one’s own bad behavior, developing and holding a grudge based on a mistaken belief – are not traits I would like to see in any elected official, especially one of our five county supervisors. If you don’t acknowledge that you have done wrong and learn from your mistakes, you just keep making the same mistakes. That is the concern I have with supervisorial candidate John Phillips. The five supervisors vote on issues of importance to all of our lives in Monterey County. We cannot afford to have even one of those five decision-makers relying on personal biases rather than the facts presented to the board.
Retired lawyer Ann Hill was a deputy district attorney in Monterey County for 32 years.