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.

Winner described case after case in which the litigants felt mystified and betrayed by the county's legal system.

One woman told of how two lawyers -- including her own attorney -- literally locked her out of the room as they and her husband decided her divorce settlement. "I was left to sit outside in the hallway like a child," she told Winner. By the time everyone returned to officially record the settlement, "they had made all the deals," she said.

The woman refused to sign what she considered a lopsided agreement, according to the report. The judge simply ignored the woman's protests and upheld the unsigned settlement as a final judgment.

The integrity of the Marin County Courthouse has shown cracks over the last year as investigations have focused on alleged judicial favoritism.
Anthony Pidgeon
The integrity of the Marin County Courthouse has shown cracks over the last year as investigations have focused on alleged judicial favoritism.

(The opposing counsel denied any wrongdoing. "Finally her own lawyer got so fed up with her, because she's so difficult, that, yes, we did meet for about two hours without her," he said, according to Winner's report. "A lengthy accounting is all it was. It was not anything mysterious.")

In another case, a woman accused Dufficy of allowing her husband to pay for attorney's fees by taking the money out of her child support payments, widely considered taboo in divorce proceedings. The attorney, whom Dufficy had appointed to represent the child, was a regular at FLEA meetings.

The woman denied ever giving permission for the payments, which she depended on to clothe and feed her son. (Opposing lawyers said she gave oral approval.) She told Winner that she had sent several letters to her lawyer, objecting to the payments, to no avail.

"From this point forward, I will sign over all of the support checks to Judge Dufficy, who may then distribute the funds to whomever he sees fit," she wrote in one sarcastic letter quoted in the report. "It may even serve to save the Court's and the attorney's time ... to remove me and [the child] from the loop altogether."

Seven attorneys, mostly FLEAs, released a rebuttal to the Winner report, though it fell short of addressing many of the most pointed allegations. Dufficy, in a court declaration, took a swing at Winner's investigation as well. "The report on the Marin County Family Court system ... is not a report at all," the judge wrote. "It is in fact a poorly written, incompetently investigated, and biased referral to child custody cases. ... The so-called report was written by a self-appointed "expert' who was paid some $12,000 by the dissatisfied litigants and their supporters to prepare what amounts to a political hit piece ...."

In defense of his conduct, Dufficy has said he keeps a professional distance while socializing. His friendships, he says, come from practicing law in the same county for some 30-odd years. "Cronyism? I know everybody," he told one legal journal.

The pervasive allegations of favoritism are not the only charges against Dufficy. Evidence shows that the judge also committed other ethical violations. In particular, the judge's relationship with Richard Riede provides perhaps the clearest example of why Dufficy is now under investigation.

Riede is one of the judge's best friends and was a regular at the Memorial Day parties. More than that, he also shared a common business interest with Dufficy by acting as his attorney -- yet, in an obvious breach of ethics, the judge failed to recuse himself when Riede appeared before him in court.

Until June 1998, Dufficy owned a significant stake, of at least $30,000, in a duck-hunting lodge in Solano County called the Island Club, according to public records. At the same time, Riede handled at least part of the lodge's business affairs: He performed the club's administrative work, signing all the club's correspondence and its applications to transfer stock, according to documents from the state's Department of Corporations.

Riede's law firm, Riede & McCall, also appeared on documents filed when the judge and his wife were selling a personal piece of property. (Riede refused to answer any questions for this article.)

The state's Code of Judicial Ethics is very clear about such financial entanglements: "A judge shall not engage in financial and business dealings that may reasonably be perceived to exploit the judge's judicial position, or involve the judge in ... continuing business relationships with lawyers ... likely to appear before the court on which the judge serves."

Not only did Riede appear before Dufficy, the judge also appointed him as counsel on a conservatorship case that earned Riede about $40,000 in costs and fees, according to the family's records.

Dufficy also heard a case in which Riede was representing the trustees of a wealthy estate. A woman by the name of Lisa Kaufman believed she had been misled into accepting an agreement that drastically cut into what she believed was her share of a $1 million inheritance, and demanded in court for an accounting of how the money had been spent.

Dufficy took the case, despite his business relationship with Riede, and even after Kaufman's attorney asked the judge to recuse himself by pointing out that Dufficy had once represented Kaufman's husband as an attorney during the couple's temporary separation. Dufficy stayed on, and quickly asserted himself on his friend's behalf. The judge denied the petition, dismissing it as a frivolous request. Kaufman's attorney declared in a court brief that Dufficy "might become the first judge in some 500 years of trust history to find a petition for accounting frivolous."

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