Photo by Joy BastOrange County Superior Court judges can’t seem to avoid controversy. Three years ago, a judge was disciplined for telling off-color jokes during a sexual-harassment trial and encouraging jurors to buy a book he wrote. Earlier this month, a state appeals court unanimously rejected a Newport Beach–based judge’s decision to allow open discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens during jury selection. Another judge, Luis A. Cardenas, faces possible expulsion from the bench for allegedly handing out special favors to defense attorneys who were his personal friends.
And now, the Weekly has learned, Orange County Superior Court Judge James M. Watson wants to know when people who address his court are HIV-positive.
An excerpt from Rule No. 2, contained in his 11-page Ground Rules, states: “Also notify the bailiff if any witness or party has an infectious disease such as hepatitis, AIDS, etc.”
In an interview with the Weekly, Watson — a Huntington Beach Republican who spent 20 years as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney and was appointed to the bench by Governor George Deukmejian in 1990 — tried to downplay any concerns about his rule.
“It’s not like I’m ordering anyone to disclose this [their HIV status]. I’m just asking,” he said. “There is a difference.”
The judge said he has kept the rule because “People around here need to know about that . . . What if somebody [with HIV or other infectious diseases] needs the restroom, or spits, or gets into a fight?”
Watson, who handles civil trials, said that he carried the rule over from his days as an Orange County criminal judge, “when we had rules about ‘keep-aways’ for obvious reasons.”
The judge’s other rules clearly are not suggestions. They include “address all comments to the court,” “counsel will assume that trials will be conducted Monday through Friday unless otherwise notified by the court” and “please keep the exhibits in the respective boxes on counsel table.”
A review of rules issued by other judges in Orange and Los Angeles counties found no similar policy, a fact Watson dismissed by saying, “I don’t care what other judges do.”
One attorney, who practices before Watson and who spoke on condition of anonymity, called the rule “puzzling and bizarre even for Orange County.”
“I’ve been practicing law for more than two decades, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” the attorney said. “Ground rules are always pretty mundane. I guess Judge Watson thought he’d spice things up.”
Myron Dean Quon, a Los Angeles attorney with Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a gay civil rights group, first asked if the rule was a “bad joke.”
“This is a huge problem. The government cannot force disclosure of HIV status. That is a requirement of a California statute,” said Quon. “There are also major privacy concerns here. I just don’t get what the judge is thinking. How is that information relevant to a judge in civil cases? It’s fascinating.”
Indeed, the California Health and Safety Code provides for monetary sanctions of up to $10,000 against “any person who negligently discloses results of an HIV test.” Another part of the statute, “Disclosure in court proceedings,” declares that “No confidential research record [of HIV status] may be compelled to be produced in any state, county or other civil proceeding.” It’s not clear whether the state law would apply to Watson’s policy.
Asked about privacy concerns, the judge said, “I don’t know anything about that.” Later he said, “Maybe they are entitled to not tell me. I don’t know.” But he also argued that, “It’s not a public declaration if it’s just made to me and my bailiff.”
Quon called the judge’s explanation “amazing.”
“This seems to me to be a facile case of a violation of privacy,” said Quon. “I just don’t see any justifiable reason for this.”
Watson does. “It’s really about comfort and safety in my courtroom,” he said. “As far as if this is a political message I’m sending in my courtroom, nothing could be further from the truth.”