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.

Dufficy's ruling was unappealable, so Kaufman sued the estate, and Riede as counsel for the trustees, for fraudulently providing her with erroneous information. A court commissioner working under Dufficy dismissed the lawsuit. On appeal, the appellate court also found in favor of Riede, ruling that his representations to Kaufman were merely opinions rather than fraudulent statements.

Dufficy's initial ruling had sidetracked the case. Even if the judge had reason to deny a simple accounting of how the estate spent its money, the fact that he was ruling on the case at all was an undeniable ethical miscalculation.

The judge has entangled himself in further conflicts of interest by allowing his wife, Penelope, to work for many of the same folks he invites to the ranch. Dufficy's financial disclosure statements acknowledge that he derives income from his wife's work, but he has rarely, if ever, declared those indirect financial relationships when attorneys who had hired his wife have appeared in his court. Richard Riede's office, for example, employed Penelope in 1994, while he was serving as Dufficy's court-appointed counsel in the lucrative conservatorship case. Verna Adams also hired Penelope while she was appearing before Dufficy in court.

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.

The state's Code of Civil Procedure says that a judge has a financial interest in a proceeding if the judge's spouse is associated with a lawyer appearing before the judge. The state's Code of Judicial Ethics also frowns on the practice. "A judge shall discourage members of the judge's family from engaging in ... continuing business relationships with persons to appear before the judge. This rule is necessary to avoid creating an appearance of exploitation of office or favoritism and to minimize the potential for disqualification."

Mauna Berkov, a family law attorney who is one of Dufficy's biggest supporters, says she doesn't believe the judge has strayed from the guidelines of his office. "Judges are able to keep the boundaries separate between their professional and social lives," she says. "The accusations of ethical misconduct are completely unfounded." Still, she says, she wouldn't hire Penelope Dufficy as her secretary, and she wouldn't want to face an attorney who kept the judge's wife on the payroll.

Dufficy seems to have also blurred the lines of proper conduct by renting office space to lawyers in a commercial building he once co-owned in San Rafael. Dufficy bought the two-story building in 1986 with three other lawyers. Dufficy claims he sold his interest in the building when he became a judge in 1990. But public records show that Dufficy's wife held at least a community interest in the property until 1994, suggesting that the Dufficy household may have been collecting rents from lawyers appearing before the judge well into his tenure.

Amid all the uproar over the investigations, the judge left Family Court in May, citing a heart condition. He has chosen to focus on the less acrimonious job of tending to general civil court matters. Even so, he and his inner circle have made little effort to clean up their act. The judge still invited everyone up to his ranch house over Memorial Day. And when the county court system created a Blue Ribbon panel to investigate its family law division, incredibly, Dufficy's closest supporters initially agreed to sit on the panel, including Riede's law partner, John McCall. That is, until Kathryn Shepherd pointed out in a court declaration that the so-called independent investigators were, in fact, collecting -- and contributing -- money for Dufficy's defense against a recall election.

"It's arrogance," Shepherd says. "You get away with something for long enough, you think you're invincible. Then even when things fall apart you can't stop."

Once an intimate part of the judge's social circle, Shepherd would know. In her office in Larkspur one Friday evening, as the sun burns gold through the windows, she recalls when her opinion of Judge Dufficy began to change.

In December 1998, Dufficy and a group of attorneys met for dinner at Salute, an upscale Italian restaurant in San Rafael. The party had reserved a private room in the back and intentionally entered the restaurant in ones and twos to avoid notice. They came to discuss a policy matter regarding the courts, but it was also a social gathering, and it might not look right if a bunch of lawyers were seen clinking wineglasses with the judge.

Shepherd was sitting across the table from Dufficy and an appointed court officer known as a referee, who did most of the grunt work for the judge. People were talking among themselves, gossiping over their salads, when an attorney by the name of Judith Cohen abruptly sat down next to Shepherd and began raving about how she had almost gotten arrested at a deposition before coming to the meeting. The table was all ears, Shepherd says, as Cohen began describing her opposing attorney as a "madman." Shepherd says she noticed the judge listening intently as Cohen went on to paint a "clearly negative characterization of the opposing attorney and client." She says she didn't know Dufficy was the presiding judge on the case, or that the man sitting next to him was the discovery referee.

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