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.

Kathryn Shepherd once counted herself a valued member of the FLEAs -- the secret club whose members considered themselves the A-list of family law lawyers in the county. But Shepherd has broken ranks and decided to come clean. She says she has been interviewed by the FBI about the judge and his small clique of attorneys.

Organized in the early 1980s, the FLEAs hoped to promote collegiality, and maybe drum up some business for one another. Shepherd says the group would sometimes meet to discuss changes in case law. More often, it would meet socially to talk shop. The club was very exclusive, she says, and very hush-hush.

"There would always be some argument over who we should allow in," Shepherd says. "We were the "in' crowd. It was like a high school clique."

Kathryn Shepherd once counted herself a member of the "in" crowd of attorneys.
Anthony Pidgeon
Kathryn Shepherd once counted herself a member of the "in" crowd of attorneys.
Kathryn Shepherd once counted herself a member of the "in" crowd of attorneys.
Anthony Pidgeon
Kathryn Shepherd once counted herself a member of the "in" crowd of attorneys.

Dufficy, who had a large family-law practice, was an active member of the club until he became a judge, but even afterward he maintained close ties with the group. In fact, every Memorial Day, the attorneys would trek up to Dufficy's 15-room manor for a three-day bacchanalia in a little town called Sheepranch.

Shepherd says Dufficy threw an especially wild party the year he was appointed judge. He had always wanted to sit on the bench; it was in his blood. His grandfather had served as a Marin County Superior Court judge at the turn of the century. Dufficy had run for a judgeship twice but lost both elections. However, he had played the political game well, most notably by co-chairing George Deukmejian's successful 1982 and 1986 gubernatorial campaigns in Marin County. That service paid off when the governor appointed Dufficy to the Municipal Court bench in 1990. Dufficy finally attained his judge's robes by accepting a political plum.

That year at Sheepranch, Shepherd says, Dufficy passed out T-shirts to all the guests with a picture on the front of a large man smoking a cigar. "Good Ol' Boy," the T-shirt read. The back depicted two bald, rotund men in business suits scratching each other's backs. All weekend, she says, Dufficy walked around in a judge's robe with nothing underneath. One night after dinner, all the attorneys got together and sprayed whipped cream on the new judge's bald head, adding a cherry for good measure.

"It was really something like Animal House," Shepherd says, laughing. "Folks would begin drinking as soon as they got up in the morning. Beer. Wine. At night they'd hit the harder stuff."

A real ham at the annual parties was one of Dufficy's best friends and a business associate, Richard Riede, a handsome, All-American type, who always brought his ukulele. He would lead the group in sing-alongs deep into the night, belting out the University of Oregon "Fight Song" and old standards like "A Bicycle Built for Two." His favorite, though, was the "Banana Boat Song," which he would begin singing at the top of his lungs when he woke up and would continue throughout the rest of the day: "Day-o, daaay-o, daylight come and we wanna go home ...."

Dufficy always played the part of the big man on campus at Sheepranch, Shepherd says. That's what the weekends were really about. Allowing the judge to pour you a glass of whiskey. One good ol' boy to another. Good people taking care of their own. And the judge's friends lapped it up. "Naturally, we were all ecstatic when Mike became a judge," Shepherd says. "You can't pay for that kind of access."

Dufficy's favoritism toward a few anointed attorneys was long suspected among other lawyers in the Marin County Courthouse. In an anonymous survey by the Marin County Bar Association released last December, which asked attorneys to grade judges, more than 30 percent of respondents said Dufficy either needed improvement regarding fair and equal treatment of all parties or showed actual bias. Worse yet, 50 of the 60 written comments were negative, many accusing the judge of favoritism:

  • "Basically, Judge Dufficy will do whatever he wants in any given case, regardless of the law. It is common knowledge that he favors certain attorneys."
  • "I have noticed Judge Dufficy shows deference to older, experienced attorneys who on occasion misinform him of the law or facts -- which he never doubts. The term "good-old-boy' has come to mind more than once."
  • "Intellectually challenged. Favors "old buddies.' Lazy. Big ego. Loves to have attorneys kiss up to him. If not on his party list -- you have no chance!"

Dufficy was devastated by the survey, Shepherd says. Over lunch one day, Dufficy told her and two other attorneys that he was considering a transfer to another jurisdiction. The lawyers talked him out of it; bowing to criticism, they said, would only further politicize the court.

But in February of this year a bigger bomb dropped when a New York author named Karen Winner released an investigative report thrashing Dufficy for favoring his comrades in Family Court. The investigation, based on scores of interviews and thousands of pages of documents, declared that Dufficy puts "power, profit, and self-interest over the welfare and safety of children and litigants."

Winner conducted the investigation on behalf of a small group of angry citizens. And though her report was flawed -- relying mostly on people who had lost cases before the judge -- it reinforced what many had suspected for years: The Marin County judicial system, and Judge Dufficy in particular, plays favorites in the courtroom.

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