SHE'S THE TOP DOG IN THE MARIN FAMILY LAW COURTS
by Virginia McCullough and Kathryn Dixon
In the troubled family law courts of Marin County, California there exists a divorce case called Semrin Ettefagh v. Vahid Ettefagh [Case No. FL 13610]. It is an old, ongoing, tedious case, filed on August 28, 1997. It was originally assigned to the infamous Family Law Judge Michael Buck Dufficy who recused himself from hearing it on July 5, 2000, with his order filed July 7, 2000. Rather then have the Judicial Council assign a new jurist to hear the case, Judge Dufficy asked his long time acquaintance Judge John A. Sutro, Jr. to take over the case.
The case now enters its sixth year and it is nowhere near completion. Filling over 20 large file boxes that have often been sealed, millions of dollars rests on its outcome. Ettefagh v. Ettefagh suffers from the "case from hell syndrome," according to papers declining representation of Semrin Ettefagh filed by Novato Attorney Robert J. Cleek on May 9, 2001. His description follows:
There are on occasion, those cases which for various reasons become known by reputation in the local legal community as "cases from hell." The reasons why this case is a "case from hell" are not particularly relevant to this discussion, nor completely known to me, but the effect of such a reputation becomes a factor increasing the case's complexity. The label is generally a self-fulfilling prophecy in any event. This case has become "politicized" and to some extent drawn media attention uncomplimentary to the local courts. It may continue to do so, casting subsequent counsel in an unwanted light. It has "a stink on it." Few attorneys have the fortitude to aggressively represent a client at the expense of what they consider their "judicial approval rating" with judges before whom they appear with all their clients day in and day out. It isn't good for business. Moreover, in this case, every family law attorney in Marin County knows that Ms. Shepherd [Mrs. Ettefagh's former attorney] was "strung out" for a huge amount in fees and costs receivable by a court which "dangled the carrot" by taking fees motions "under submission" while her work necessarily progressed and then failed to deliver, leaving counsel holding the bag and required to withdraw on a client unable to pay. No attorney will ever place themselves in Ms. Shepherd's shoes again in this case. That much is for sure. "Once burned, shame on you. Twice burned, shame on me."
After Judge Dufficy recused himself, plaintiff Semrin Ettefagh walked into the courtroom of Marin Judge John A. Sutro, Jr. in an attempt to reach a financial settlement in her divorce. She had no lawyer and she sat alone before the judge. Across from her were seated rich and powerful attorneys representing her ex-husband and ex-father-in-law, whose combined estate is estimated to be worth $20 million dollars. Suddenly Judge Sutro ordered a deputy sheriff to be posted immediately behind the chair where Semrin sat. A large, black dog entered the courtroom, a bailiff tightly holding onto the dog's leash. Semrin had not been accused of any crime and had no history of violence. Semrin had been deathly afraid of dogs all of her life. Now she huddled in fear in this American courtroom, afraid to move or speak. Running through her mind were questions such as:
Why was the black dog present?
Wasn't the presence of a regular Bailiff with a gun and billy club enough court security?
How could she concentrate of what was said in court in the presence of this dog?
Why was the dog positioned next to her and not next to the lawyers for the opposing side?
Was the dog there because she was of Turkish descent and had lived in Iran?
Was the dog present because she was singled out as a female litigant in family law court?
Judge Sutro gave no explanation for the black dog's presence.
During a telephone interview, Detective Kline of the Marin County Sheriff's Department denied the black dog was present in court with Semrin Ettefagh. When asked if the black dog had ever been present in the courtroom during another high profile case involving a woman named Carol Mardeusz, the Detective declined to comment. However, Detective Kline is proud of the black dog who he described as a female Labrador named Verona. Verona is not assigned to any particular courtroom. She goes wherever her handler and partner, Daniel Marrett, takes her. Deputy Sheriff Marrett works in the Court Division or Bailiff Patrol in the beautiful Marin County Courthouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Detective Kline's official line is that Verona just happened to be in court that day. Detective Kline praises Verona for her fine, gentle temperament and invites the public to meet Verona and Dan Marrett. He's sure the public will like her and not find her presence, in places such as Family Court, unsettling. "She is a good dog", Kline says.
Apparently Judge Sutro did not find the presence of Verona detrimental to court decorum. Perhaps Judge Sutro, who has served as Marin's Presiding Judge, in charge of all court operations, did not know who Verona and Dan Marrett are? If Judge Sutro doesn't know, he better learn. Verona is top dog!
Verona is a bomb sniffing canine who was trained by the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms. Verona and Marrett are also part of the National Strike Force, which trains out of Hamilton Field in Novato, California which is the home of the Pacific Strike Team. "Marin County is the only local law enforcement unit in California with an ATF trained handler and dog team" Marrett told Marin Independent Journal reporter Keri Brenner. The only other ATF bomb sniffing dogs in California are with ATF agents -- one in Santa Rosa and the other in Los Angeles."
Marrett and Verona also attended the ATF's eleven and one-half week long canine training program in Virginia. The ATF trained Verona to detect explosives, explosives residue, post blast evidence, firearms and ammunition hidden in containers and vehicles, on persons and buried underground. Marrett stated, "Verona can find an explosive down to one tenth of an ounce. You can put a little bit of gunpowder in a closed can, punch a tiny hold is the side and then hide it, and she'll find it." Verona can detect 19,000 varieties of explosive materials.
Verona and Marrett still train two hours per day, seven days a week. The ATF's training methodology requires Verona to be repeatedly exposed to various explosive odors daily, to reinforce her ability to detect these odors.
The ATF site on canine training explains the true purpose of having Verona and Marrett patrol the Marin Courthouse. It involves the national response to terrorist acts. The National Strike team, of which Verona and Marrett are affiliated, was one of the teams which responded to the World Trade Center attacks. The Team is affiliated with the U.S. Coast Guard.
The ATF web site announces: "With the assistance of support systems such as the National Response Team, Explosives Technology Branch, ATF Laboratories, Certified Explosives Specialists, and the ATF Firearms Branch and Tracing Center, the ATF has 21 ATF handlers working with bomb sniffer canines throughout the United States."
In the early 1990's, the ATF, the Connecticut State Police and the U.S. Department of State, Office of Anti Terrorism Assistance, began training explosives detection canine teams to go to select foreign countries to combat terrorism. Currently, the ATF has 21 ATF handlers working with bomb sniffer canines throughout the United States.
One of the ATF teams, Verona and Dan Marrett, are deployed to the civilian Marin County Courthouse. Verona is one of the few ATF trained, National Strike Force dogs in civilian hands in the United States.
How did the Marin County family law courtrooms become a venue for a bomb sniffer team of the anti terrorist National Strike Force? How did Verona and Dan Marrett end up in the family court room of Judge John A. Sutro?
The Marin County Civil Grand Jury of 2001-2002 specifically commended Marin Sheriff Robert T. Doyle for "going to great lengths to successfully compete against other Bay Area counties for the right to place that unit (canine unit) in Marin County." The grand jury boasted "The Federally trained canine unit is an extremely valuable security asset."
Sheriff Doyle is an expert bailiff himself. In November 1969, Sheriff Doyle began his career with the Marin County Sheriff's Office as a courtroom bailiff. On its web site the Sheriff's Department states: "This assignment [the Bailiff's Division] is also a useful stepping stone to other divisions as it gives you comprehensive knowledge of the criminal justice system. Sheriff Doyle served as a bailiff in the beginning of his law enforcement career."
Governor Ed Wilson appointed Sheriff Doyle as a member of the Task Force on Court Facilities which delivered a series of reports about tightening security in California courts. In September 2002, the Task Force's work paid off when Governor Gray Davis signed a law shifting control and financial responsibility for California's more than 450 courthouses from the counties to the state. Supreme Count Justice Ronald M. George called the law "one of the most significant court reforms in history...that will bring our state courthouses into the 21st century and become the 'temples of justice' they were meant to be."
The objective of the law was state uniformity in court functions and upgrading facilities - in short, centralized state control of local courts. In 1998, under Justice George's direction, the state began paying court costs and coordinating trial courts. Under the new law, counties will still maintain ownership of historic buildings, such as the Marin County Courthouse, and will pay off existing courthouse debt and reimburse the state for maintenance costs.
Who will pay the state for taking over court facilities? Filing fees have gone up. Litigants will pay. The state now can pay the Marin County Sheriff's Department for increased security. Verona will not run out of dog food.
The Marin County Grand Jury got itself ready for the pork barrel's grand opening. In its report, it noted: "The State of California, which has assumed control of and responsibility for the courts, has taken steps to identify security needs and to fund a significant portion of their associated costs. This increased level of funding, as well as a newly implemented system of deploying bailiffs, has enabled the Sheriff's Department to provide additional roving deputy patrol on the court floor and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the building complex as well."
But how did the grand jury pave the way for Verona and Marrett to end up in a Marin County Family Court?
The Marin County Grand Jury took testimony from various unnamed individuals regarding the level of alleged violence in the family courts. In fact, the report focuses on family law violence, when one would expect the focus would be on bringing prisoners into court from San Quentin and on public murder and violent felony trials. The tension in the Family Law Courts has reached unprecedented levels in the eyes of those in authority. Family court corruption led to the attempted recalls of several judges, including the infamous Judge Michael Dufficy, and the District Attorney Paula Kamena. There are many litigants in Marin County who contend their children were placed in the hands of child abusers and molesters by the very courts charged with protecting them.
Newspaper and magazine articles ridicule Judge Michael Dufficy and his FLEAs [Family Law Elite Attorneys] and denounce his patronage and their cronyism. Questions abound about whether their arrangements are simply quid pro quo or whether more direct bribes are changing hands. The FBI has conducted investigations into both rumors and valid questions. District Attorney Paula Kamena, who worked closely with Judge Dufficy on Juvenile Drug Courts, abdicated her responsibility to prosecute obstruction of justice, perjury and falsification of court documents. She became an active participant in the cover-up and refused to participate in a clean up of the corrupt courts.
It is no wonder that the witnesses who were trotted out before the Marin County Grand Jury to justify recommendations of heavy new security measures, including Verona - herself, were a group of individuals, anonymous in name, but identified as being part of the family law system, who believe themselves to be under attack. No family law litigants or safety experts testified. Feeling safe as a litigant in court because one experiences proper court decorum was not at issue before the Grand Jury. Instead, a detective, a police captain, a former judicial officer and deputy public defender expressed their fears -- fears of the litigants in family court. The Grand Jury reported:
"A detective on the staff of a police department in Southern Marin County described security at the Civic Center as "awful." That person cited the Hall of Justice as being "ripe for violence because of the high tension surrounding both family and child custody proceedings as well as cases involving 'three strikers' who have nothing to lose." Recommendations from that source included the use of metal detectors and wands outside every courtroom, more widespread use of searchers of persons and their belongings, and greater use of cameras and signage to discourage would-be troublemakers."
"A captain of the police department of one of the county's cities said that, although security at the Civic Center is extremely poor, it would be wrong to use "siege architecture" to design an unapproachable fortress. Instead, that source made a very strong plea to improve security through the use of metal detectors at each courtroom, and particularly at those in which high risk cases are heard -- cases such as domestic matters, child custody hearings, and appearances and trials involving serious felonies and "three strikes" crimes. Also recommended was a secure waiting room for victims, prosecution witnesses, and police officers."
"A former judicial officer stressed the need for better security in the Family law area of the Hall of Justice because of its "tumultuous" nature and the frequent anger of these litigants."
"A member of the Public Defender's office noted that the risk of violence is greatest in Family Court and suggested permanently assigning a roving bailiff in this area. That interviewee also suggested that attorney's social workers, and others who represent litigants in court should assume greater responsibility to alert security personnel to potentially violent situations before they come to court."
Having heard this fearful testimony, the Grand Jury found improvement could be made only if certain persons in court would report these troublemakers, identified as family law litigants.
"Occasionally, prosecutors, public defenders, private counsel (who are also officers of the court), probation officers, social workers and others become aware of desperate people and/or potentially explosive situations. All these professionals could (and some have on some occasions), without violating their ethical responsibilities, provide advance warning to the sheriff's office of the possibility of violence. There had been no effort to publicize the need for such cooperation and assistance from these valuable sources of intelligence."
Therefore, the Grand Jury recommended:
"An outreach program should be put in place to encourage all people involved in courtroom activities (including prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys, investigators, probation officers, and social workers ) to report, well in advance of any court appearance, any people whom they know or have reason to suspect might become desperate or violent in or around the Hall of Justice."
Did someone in the "outreach program" -- an opposing attorney, the fearful Judge Sutro, or a party opposing Semrin, report well in advance of her court appearance that Verona would be a welcome addition to the Court's decor?
Ultimately, however, Judge Sutro was in charge of his own courtroom the day that Verona was present. If Judge Sutro did not order the dog into his courtroom, he could have ordered it to leave. On the other hand. if Judge Sutro has nothing to say, as to whether Verona is present in his court, then one can conclude people other Judge Sutro run the courts.
An essential element of court life is decorum.
The California Code of Judicial Ethics, Canon 3(B), (3), (4), and (5) sets out the type of atmosphere in a courtroom which is required to ensure fairness and impartiality among all the participants.
(3) A judge shall require order and decorum in proceedings before the judge.
(4) A judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity, and shall require similar conduct of lawyers and of all court staff and personnel under the judge's direction and control.
(5) A judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.
Judge Sutro's sense of court decorum was to have his bomb sniffer ready at the leash. One wonders how long Verona needed to sniff out these female litigants and their environs in accordance with ATF and Pacific Strike Team protocols and the protocols of the Marin County Sheriff's Department? While the judge waits and watches the fear in the litigant's eyes does he pet Verona and give her a biscuit at times?
The California Commission of Judicial Performance has issued private discipline on only three occasions to judges who lacked "decorum" and "demeanor" in violation of the Judicial Code of Ethics. These summaries found at http://cjp.ca.gov/2001privdisc.htm state:
In two juvenile dependency matters, a judge made comments to parents that were demeaning and created the appearance of lack of impartiality.
A judge made demeaning remarks and expressed hostility in open court toward an attorney who sought correction of an inaccurate order. On another occasion, the judge made gratuitous and disparaging remarks in open court about an attorney, in the attorney's absence.
A judge displayed sarcasm and derision in remarks toward a pro per litigant in a civil harassment matter.
It is obvious that none of the above matters involve the canine species. Judge Sutro can rest easy -- there is no precedent for finding lack of decorum by having a bomb sniffer within paw's reach of a female litigant in family law court. There is no Commission on Canine Performance in Court -- yet.
However, Judge Sutro remains under investigation by the Commission of Judicial Performance for his conduct in the Semrin Ettefagh matter. In this same case, Judge Michael Buck Dufficy has already been privately disciplined by the Commission. This case truly "has a stink on it" and the stink emanates from the judges.
One thing is very clear in the Marin Family Law Courts - among all the officers of the court -- judges, attorneys and bailiffs, Verona is still the top dog!
By Virginia McCullough, Kathryn Dixon © 11/25/02