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O.C. judge censured for trying to help wife avoid fine

July 5, 2012 |  4:53 pm

An Orange County superior court judge has been rebuked by a state oversight committee for violating judicial ethics in trying to help his wife avoid paying late fees levied on an unpaid traffic citation.

In a decision released Thursday, the Commission on Judicial Performance issued a public censure of Judge Salvador Sarmiento for "improper conduct in seeking preferential treatment" for his wife.

The commission said that Sarmiento bypassed typical procedures by asking a subordinate -- a court commissioner -- to schedule a trial date for his wife after she received a November 2010 citation for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk and ignored multiple notices from the court to deal with the ticket.

The judge's wife, who was not named in the report, owed a $300 civil assessment -- essentially a late fee -- and $25 in other fees, in addition to the bail amount of $284 for the citation.

The court would vacate the civil assessment if she appeared within 10 days of the notice sent to her on Feb. 7, 2011, and provided a good reason for not having paid on time. Sarmiento approached the commissioner three days later about setting a trial date for his wife.

The commission, in its decision, condemned Sarmiento for "serious judicial misconduct which severely damages the reputation of the judiciary." 

"The public has a right to expect that justice will be dispensed with an even hand and without favoritism," the ruling said. "Judge Sarmiento's conduct makes it more difficult for judges throughout the state to maintain the trust and respect of the public."

The commission consists of three judges, two lawyers and six members of the public; one judge was recused in this case.

The commission chose to publicly censure Sarmiento, rather than remove him from his post. In reaching that decision, the commission cited a lack of previous misconduct during Sarmiento's lengthy tenure as a judge and a low likelihood that he would repeat the misconduct, since he has acknowledged his wrongdoing.

In fact, Sarmiento reported himself 18 months ago and has cooperated throughout the process, his attorney, Randall A. Miller, said in a statement Thursday. Miller described the process as "arduous and time consuming" for Sarmiento, and he said the process could have continued for another six months.

"The length of the process, in addition to the toll on his family and health, all played significant roles in the decision to commit to the resolution," Miller said. "He is satisfied with the conclusion, and very much looks forward to moving beyond this."

Sarmiento has been a superior court judge since 2003, and before that, had been a superior court commissioner since 1997. His wife has since paid the bail amount of the ticket and the civil assessment.

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-- Rick Rojas

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