In recent years some Judges in Kern County have come under fire for issues of bias and whether they should have disqualified themselves from a case before them. The Judicial Council has implemented specific guidelines for bench officers in cases where some conflict of interest might influence whether they should recuse themselves in a criminal. DUI or civil case. Indeed, Judges have a duty to make their decisions free from any bias or prejudice. Cal Rules of Ct, Standards of J Admin 10.20; Cal Rules of Ct, Code of Judicial Ethics, Canon 3B(5). Because of this obligation, judges must disqualify themselves in proceedings in which their disqualification is required by law (see CCP §170.1(a); discussion in §§2.11–2.19) or in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
A Kern County Judge must disclose on the record information the judge believes the parties or their attorneys might consider relevant to the question of disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no actual basis for disqualification. Cal Rules of Ct, Code of Judicial Ethics, Canon 3E(2); Cal Rules of Ct 2.817 [temporary judge]. The parties should have an opportunity to weigh this information when considering whether to challenge the judge. Many kern county judges invite the parties to comment on the disclosed information. Even if the parties decide to waive disqualification, disclosure helps to ensure that they are fully informed when they do so In order to make an informed decision about recusal, Kern County Judges must review their financial interests and family relationships as they may relate to the cases before them. CCP §170.1(a)(3)(C). Because in some instances membership in certain organizations may have the potential to give an appearance of partiality even though membership itself may not be barred by the judicial canons, a judge should consider disqualification under the general standards of Canon 3E(1). If the judge believes no basis for disqualification exists, he or she should nevertheless disclose the membership if the parties or their lawyers might consider the information relevant to the question of disqualification.
How does a commissioner or a referee differ from a Kern County Judge?
The California Constitution allows trial courts to appoint officers such as commissioners to perform subordinate judicial duties. Under this authority, many courts use traffic commissioners or referees to handle many aspects of the traffic caseload. The procedures for appointment and authority are set forth in Government Code Sections 70214(d), 72190–72190.2. Under this code, a court commissioner or traffic referee has the authority to exercise the same powers and duties as a judge with respect to traffic infractions.
Regarding Vehicle Code misdemeanor violations such as DUI and drunk driving, a commissioner or referee may:
• Set bail,
• Grant continuances,
• Arraign defendants,
• Hear and recommend orders to be made on demurrers and motions,
• Take pleas of guilty or no contest,
• Set cases for hearing or trial,
• Impose a fine following a plea of guilty or no contest,
• Suspend all or a portion of any fine, and
• Order a defendant to attend traffic school.
A Kern County commissioner also has the authority to issue a bench warrant for the arrest of a defendant who fails to appear in a DUI or to perform any act required by a court order. Should a Kern County Judge be unavailable to preside over a given case then a commissioner will be appointed to hear the matter. The law does allow the litigant to object to having a non-judge hear the matter, a lawyer should be consulted for specifics with regard to these laws.