Public defender asks judge to be disqualified

SANTA CRUZ — The Santa Cruz County Public Defenders Office has asked a Superior Court judge be disqualified from hearing one of its cases after the judge was publicly censured last month, and did not reveal the full extent of that censure during an ongoing case.

In a filing dated May 27, attorney Jerry Vinluan, who is defending Nino Ruiz on murder charges, stated that Judge Ariadne Symons cannot be trusted to be non-biased after she failed to disclose that she had been sanctioned in a separate case involving the public defender’s office.

“Judge Symons’ misleading actions and her false facade of transparency to Mr. Ruiz’s counsel shows that she is absolutely biased towards his counsel,” Vinluan wrote in a court document.

Symons received the censure on May 20 for four separate violations of judicial ethics.

One of those violations – the one that prompted Vinluan to make his motion – occurred May 2, when Symons was hearing a case involving the violation of a restraining order.

According to the public censure document from the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP), Symons received a question from the jury during the deliberation phase, and called Deputy District Attorney Xavier Mitchell and public defender Mischa Rinkus.

Rinkus did not immediately respond to Symons’ call, and Symons later discussed the question by phone with only Mitchell. She later made her written response based on that discussion, the CJP stated.

The jury later returned with a guilty verdict, causing Rinkus to file a motion for a new trial. She later negotiated what Symons described as a “sweetheart” deal for her client.

“Judge Symons took no steps to notify Ms. Rinkus of her telephone conversation with Mr. Mitchell, or of her written response to the jury’s question,” the censure document reads.


The red light ticket

Symons was also censured for her actions after she ran a red light in Capitola on May 10, 2016, which was captured by a red light camera. Symons later told a fellow judge and other people at the court about the incident.

But when the citation was delivered to her residence, it mistakenly listed Symons’ husband as the driver. According to the filing by the CJP, Symons helped her husband in filing the request for trial by written declaration, which resulted in getting the citation dismissed and the $489 fine refunded.

She did not, however, say she was the driver

“Prior to filing the document, the judge took no steps to notify the Capitola Police Department or the citation processing company that she was the one responsible for the citation,” the document said.


Showing possible bias

In addition, Symons was accused of exhibiting bias in a third case in 2013, when she admitted to being openly skeptical of the plaintiffs in a landlord dispute.


The 40s comment

In the fourth case in 2016, a woman was asking for a domestic violence restraining order against her husband, who she said frequently drank alcohol and engaged in behavior that scared her and their children.

During the hearing, Symons ordered the man not to consume alcohol before visiting the children or while visiting them.

At one point, Symons told the man, “You can’t down a couple of 40s before you go pick them up before a visit because that’s not good.”

According to the CJP, that statement violated the Code of Judicial Ethics, which requires judges to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.


The current case

Vinluan is currently defending Ruiz on charges he killed Joey Shuemaker on Aug. 23, 2016 on the west levee of the San Lorenzo River.

According to Vinluan, Symons did not disclose her censure for the incident with Rinkus in the beginning stages of the trial, telling them only about being reprimanded for the comment about drinking 40’s.

“She misled us,” he said.

The matter that concerned Vinluan, he said, was the one involving Rinkus.

“It was a complaint specifically involving our office,” he said. “That’s a problem.”

Vinluan said that there is a very low legal standard when discussing possible judicial bias.

“It’s not whether or not there is a conflict,” he said. “It’s the appearance of a conflict.”

The matter is especially serious in Ruiz’s case, since he is facing 50 years to life in prison.

“This is Mr. Ruiz’s life,” he said. “That is obviously an issue, and we want someone, at least for the appearance, to be someone that is fair and impartial.”

Public censure is the most severe punishment a jurist can receive, short of removal from the bench.


Symons’ response

Symons has been a judge since 2009. Her current term began in January 2015, and she is up for reelection in 2020.

Judges typically cannot respond to criticism, and do not comment on ongoing cases.

“It is sometimes unfortunate, but for sound policy reasons, judges are completely hamstrung from defending themselves with regard to allegations regarding anything occurring in pending (or impending) cases because of their ethical rules,” said Symons attorney Kathleen Ewins.

Symons’ attorney also provided a list of people who support Symons after the censure, including 18 former and current elected officials, 12 members of the legal community, four members of the law enforcement community and 10 community leaders.

In a prepared statement, Symons called the CJP process “long and challenging,” and said she is looking forward to focusing on her work as a Santa Cruz County Judge.

“Ultimately, I recognize that as an elected public servant I am always held to a higher standard of conduct,” Symons stated. “I have always tried to conduct myself in a highly ethical manner and treat the people that appear in my courtroom with the utmost respect and dignity, no matter the circumstances. This process has taught me that I can do better in these areas and I am confident I will be a better judge because of this.”


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