Odor! Odor in the Court

It wasn't impossible to find justice in Michael Dufficy's Marin County courtroom. But it was easier if you had been to one of his parties.

Paul Camera, a family law attorney in Marin County, didn't want to embarrass the judge. He only wanted what was best for his client, and unfortunately that meant taking the extraordinary step of asking the Honorable Michael B. Dufficy to remove himself from the case.

It was not an easy decision to make, even for a widely respected, seasoned attorney. Judges do not look kindly on lawyers who publicly challenge their authority. To ask the judge to recuse himself could make life very difficult for Camera in this case and perhaps others in the future. Complicating matters, Camera had known Dufficy since their college days at Stanford. But the attorney says he had no choice.

"It was just time," he says. "I couldn't stand it anymore."

Judge Michael Dufficy attributes his friendships to more than 30 years of practicing law in the same county. "Cronyism? I know everybody," he told a legal journal.
Jeremy Eaton
Judge Michael Dufficy attributes his friendships to more than 30 years of practicing law in the same county. "Cronyism? I know everybody," he told a legal journal.
Judge Michael Dufficy attributes his friendships to more than 30 years of practicing law in the same county. "Cronyism? I know everybody," he told a legal journal.
Courtesy of the Pacific Sun/Fred Mertz
Judge Michael Dufficy attributes his friendships to more than 30 years of practicing law in the same county. "Cronyism? I know everybody," he told a legal journal.

So in April of last year, Camera, an imposing figure with an iron handshake, marched into Dufficy's courtroom and asked him to remove himself from a divorce case, on the grounds that the judge was biased in favor of the opposing attorney, Verna Adams. "She was in- volved in your campaign when you ran for judge," Camera said. "She was a close personal friend before and after that ... which included invitations which she has accepted to Your Honor's place in Sheepranch to spend weekends up there with you. ... So I'm asking you to recuse yourself."

Adams immediately denied Camera's allegations, accusing him of diverting the court's attention from the merits of the case. "I think Mr. Camera ought to be ashamed of himself," she said.

Dufficy appeared equally reluctant to take the attorney's claims seriously. "Well, Mr. Camera, let me say something. If I thought for one minute that I had a relationship with any lawyer that appears before me that caused me to consciously or unconsciously favor that lawyer, I would not -- I wouldn't have any hesitancy to recuse myself," the judge said, adding that a subordinate had told him Camera was going to make the request. "I have not decided what I am going to do on the recusal yet, but I find it difficult -- I just want to be candid --"

"Your Honor, this is the morning for candor, believe me," Camera pleaded, pressing his argument. "The last thing I want to do after all these years -- I mean we've known each other since before we were old enough to legally drink ...."

The attorney paused.

"I wish you would accept ... the recusal request, please."

After a brief recess, Dufficy agreed to remove himself, not because of bias but based on the technicality that he had received word of Camera's intentions outside the courtroom, considered an ex parte communication.

Camera had won a minor victory for his client, but the attorney had actually spoken for many other lawyers and litigants who had lost faith in the judge. Things had gotten so bad, Camera says, that the facts of the case didn't matter in Dufficy's courtroom -- it was all about the attorney. "We called it the "Verna Factor,'" he says. "If Verna Adams was representing the opposing side in Dufficy's court, you might as well not show up."

And it was not just Adams, Camera says. It was a little group of five or six attorneys who could do no wrong as far as Dufficy was concerned. "It got to the point that we weren't practicing law anymore," says Camera. "We were practicing politics."

The Marin County Family Court is in turmoil, and Judge Michael Dufficy is at the center of the storm. The judge is the subject not only of a federal investigation but also a recall effort, based on charges that he and a small coterie of lawyers engaged in favoritism and ethical misconduct that ran roughshod over the justice system. Lawyers and litigants allege that Duf- ficy and a close circle of his friends decided highly charged cases of child custody, divorce settlements, and inheritances not on their merits but according to personal whims, friendships, and favors.

The judge and his pals socialized together, held wild parties every year at the judge's vacation home, and even had a name for themselves -- the FLEAs, for Family Law Elite Attorneys. Though Dufficy was no longer an "official" FLEA when he joined the bench, he remained within its social circle and in fact became the group's de facto head.

Now the judge's actions are under investigation by the FBI. The Marin County Superior Court has also appointed a Blue Ribbon panel to look at the practices of its family law division. And just a few weeks ago, the state's Judicial Council, in charge of administering California's courts, asked a national regulatory agency to do its own independent investigation of Marin's family-law practices.

Dufficy has never acknowledged that his friends enjoy special treatment in court. Though he has failed to respond to numerous inquiries regarding this article, he has denied in court briefs that he favors anyone.

But public records and interviews show that Dufficy has, indeed, smiled upon a circle of friends, and in doing so, overstepped the ethical boundaries of his office. Those breaches include:

  • charges that he has decided cases based on personal relationships;
  • presiding over cases even though he had direct and indirect financial ties with one of the attorneys;
  • hearing a large number of cases while his wife was working for the lawyers appearing before him;
  • hosting long weekends at his ranch, attended by a select group of attorneys, where court business was a regular topic of conversation, according to one of Dufficy's closest confidants.
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