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Bassett Unified School Dist. v. Super. Ct. (CA2/5 B323528 3/14/23) Judicial Impartiality

By March 14, 2023March 16th, 2023Wrongful Termination

This writ proceeding involves a statutory challenge for cause filed against a trial court judge presiding over a wrongful termination lawsuit.  The parties are plaintiff Michael Ross and his former employer, defendant Bassett Unified School District. 

Following a multimillion dollar jury verdict in favor of Ross, the trial judge in this action, Honorable Stephanie Bowick, received a text message from another judge on the court, Honorable Rupert Byrdsong.  According to Judge Bowick, “I received a text message from Judge Byrdsong on my cellphone that stated, quote, ‘$25 Million!! [Confetti emoji], [confetti emoji].’[ ]  I did not respond to the text message.”  Judge Byrdsong had previously informed Judge Bowick that attorneys from his former firm were trying the case.  On one occasion he had greeted Ross’s counsel in Judge Bowick’s courtroom during a break in the proceedings and later brought Judge Bowick a food item.  On another, Judge Byrdsong had briefly observed, from the audience, the jury selection in Judge Bowick’s courtroom, until Judge Bowick had a note passed to him asking him to leave.

Upon receipt of the postverdict text message, Judge Bowick disclosed to the parties the entire course of events involving Judge Byrdsong.  Pointing to Judge Byrdsong’s apparent support for Ross and the resulting verdict in Ross’s favor, the school district sought Judge Bowick’s disqualification, asserting that a “ ‘person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial’ ” (Code Civ. Proc., § 170.1, subd (a)(6)(A)(iii)).  The disqualification motion was assigned to Orange County Superior Court Judge Maria D. Hernandez.  (See Code Civ. Proc., § 170.3, subd. (c)(5).)  In a 10-page order, the assigned judge denied the disqualification motion.

Defendant sought review by petition for writ of mandate.  We issued an order to show cause, and now deny the petition.