OAKLAND — The Alameda County Superior Court judge charged last week with a dozen felonies and accused of stealing from his elderly widowed neighbor continues to preside over a court at the county’s smallest courthouse.
Judge Paul Daniel Seeman was reassigned this week to Department 702 at the Gale-Schenone Hall of Justice in Pleasanton, where he will sit in judgment of small-claims cases.
Because Seeman is an elected official and constitutional officer, there are only three ways to force him from the bench before his criminal case is concluded. The 57-year-old judge can be impeached by the state Assembly, recalled by voters or forced to take a leave by a state commission that oversees judicial performance.
Seeman can also take a voluntary leave of absence but sources say that hasn’t occurred, and, as a result, he was transferred from the courtroom where he was arrested June 14 just before he was set to take the bench of the county’s misdemeanor arraignment court.
Seeman was charged last week with one count of financial elder abuse and 11 counts of perjury after being accused of secretly taking control of a 97-year-old woman’s assets after her husband died in 1999.
Over the course of eight years, police and prosecutors allege Seeman took control over all of Anne Nutting’s assets, which in 2004 were valued at more than $2.2 million. He is also accused of selling two properties she owned in Santa Cruz, her Lionel train set, stamp and coin collection and art prints valued at about $250,000.
During that same period, Seeman is alleged to have bought $1.4 million worth of real estate for himself.
While the charges filed against Seeman state that he stole at least $200,000 from Nutting, it remains unclear how much was taken from his neighbor.
On Wednesday, after quietly having his previously scheduled July 3 court date changed, Seeman appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to the charges. Seeman’s attorney also filed a motion allowing the judge to skip most court appearances as his case moves through the system.
Though Seeman is charged with serious felonies that could result in him being sent to prison, state law limits the way he could be forced to take a leave.
Absent a recall or impeachment, the only way to force Seeman from the bench is a vote by the Commission on Judicial Performance, a group made up of 11 appointed members including a state appellate justice, two judges, two attorneys and six state residents.
Any vote by the commission can only be made after its staff has conducted its own investigation into Seeman’s actions and that investigation concludes that Seeman’s criminal troubles are hampering his ability to serve as a judge. It’s a process that could take at least 20 days.
Since 2002, the commission has voted to remove eight judges while 28 judges have either retired or resigned while proceedings against them were pending, commission records show.
Victoria Henley, director-general counsel for the commission, declined Thursday to confirm or deny if such an investigation has begun against Seeman, saying any action before a public vote by the commission is confidential.
But speaking hypothetically, Henley said an investigation can begin once the commission is notified that a judge has been charged with a felony. State law requires Seeman to notify the commission of the charges filed against him.
Should an investigation occur, Seeman will be allowed to argue against a forced leave of absence before the commission votes. If the commission forces Seeman to take a leave, he will continue to be paid his salary, which in 2009 was $126,488 a year. The commission could also vote to remove Seeman from office.
If Seeman is eventually found guilty of the crimes or accepts a plea deal in the case, he will immediately be forced from office.
But without a decision from the commission or conclusion of his felony case, Seeman can continue to serve but must notify parties before him that he has a felony criminal case pending against him.
Ethically, law professors said, Seeman should voluntarily take a leave considering the seriousness of the charges. Although any criminal defendant is innocent until proved guilty, professors said, a judge is in a unique position that requires the public’s trust.
“Ideally, yes, I think the judicial system is only as strong as the perception that it is truly filled with judges who have integrity,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Judges are unique in our government because they are not accountable in a way that other public officials are. … As a result, we really need to be able to trust them.”
Michael Markowitz, Seeman’s defense attorney, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Alameda County judge accused of financial elder abuse remains on bench
Paul T. Rosynsky/Oakland Tribune
June 22, 2012
San Jose Mercury News