(Illustration by Hal Marie Saga)

Courtroom watchdog program holds Los Angeles judges accountable

Local residents sign up with CourtWatch LA for many reasons. Some volunteers are law students or lawyers. Others are formerly incarcerated or have incarcerated family members. Some are just curious. But, all volunteers are dispatched to courtrooms across Los Angeles County to take notes on Superior Court proceedings. Volunteers’ observations are foundational to the Rate My Judge platform run by La Defensa, the decarceration nonprofit that relaunched CourtWatch after a three-year hiatus.

CourtWatch LA is among similar watchdog groups in Florida, Missouri, Virginia, Connecticut and New York. Los Angeles’s program was designed to mirror a successful accountability program in New York, where judges have resigned because of information revealed in court observations. Founded in 2018, the New York program is also powered by volunteers. In addition, Court Watch NYC produces zines introducing readers to the judges, court system jargon and policy changes like bail reform

Court Watch NOLA, launched in 2007, is one of the oldest courtroom accountability programs. Black people make up roughly 39% of the U.S. prison population, according to 2024 data from the Bureau of Prisons. In Louisiana, more than half of the prison population is Black. New Orleans court watchers’ success is undeniable: Orleans Parish has the most proven wrongful convictions per capita of any jurisdiction nationwide. 

In California, Black people are incarcerated at 9.5 times the rate of white people, according to a Prison Policy Project report. In Los Angeles County, one of the country’s largest judicial and carceral systems with 38 courts and more than 2.7 million cases filed each year, CourtWatch provides important oversight on the criminalization of income and race in court.

Observations in action 

La Defensa staff and a growing army of CourtWatch volunteers–130 and counting–try to visit as many courtrooms as possible. Last fall, I spent a morning at the Inglewood Courthouse in pretrial hearings with four CourtWatch volunteers and Bryanna Siguenza, La Defensa’s judicial accountability coordinator. No one at the entrance tells you which court to be at or when. When there were announcements about changes to hearings, it was unclear which courtroom or judge the bailiffs were speaking about. Hushed murmurs and furtive glances around the whitewashed halls accentuated the seeming need for silence. On this day, Siguenza pointed toward a crowd of people waiting outside another court. Bailiffs tell them that they are waiting for a judge stuck in traffic, but are given no further instructions. 

When you’re in a courtroom, there’s no one there telling you exactly what’s happening. “[When I joined CourtWatch] I had to kind of figure it out on my own. I can only imagine how it is for someone who doesn’t know where to go.”

– Christine Rodriguez, CourtWatch LA volunteer

Besides confusion, there was an air of suspicion. Bailiffs sometimes “keep an eye” on CourtWatch volunteers because it’s unusual for people who are not family members of defendants or directly involved in a case to show up for court, explained Siguenza. A bailiff's attitude toward observers often reflects how their judge treats defendants and others in their court proceedings, she said. Titlayo Rasaki, policy and campaigns strategist for La Defensa, told me that cases of volunteers being verbally harassed by bailiffs or police officers have been recorded, although they are uncommon. Rasaki said that is all the more reason for court watchers to be present in the courtroom, to document the behavior. 

The ability to participate in CourtWatch, and the court system as a whole, said Rasaki, means you have to have “some sense of financial security” and flexibility in your schedule to be present. “It’s part of the same reason why it's hard for people to go to jury duty. This part of our system is really opaque, and it's hard to get in. And often people only engage with it once it touches their lives.” CourtWatch, she said, is a way to make the court system in Los Angeles accessible to everyone.

As Christine Rodriguez pursued her masters in legal studies, she became interested in observing how trial courts in her area operated. She’s now one of CourtWatch LA’s regular volunteers. She’s become especially intrigued by an evictions court in Pasadena, from where she regularly posts observations to social media.

In her first post of 2024, Rodriguez speaks about a trial she attended in Los Angeles, where Los Angeles Superior Court is held. She felt Judge Jerrold Abeles was harsh on a tenant who was representing himself in court, and lenient on landlords’ lawyers when they asked irrelevant questions about the defendant.

Rodriguez said she’s noticed that judges are often upset when tenants show up and do not understand the legal proceedings or legal terminology. Instead of guiding tenants through the process, she said judges often side with their landlords. Similarly, when defendants don’t make their court appearances, judges and prosecutors capitalize on their absence, recounted Rodriguez, by bringing up previous convictions and the like. “That person is not there to contest or give an explanation,” said Rodriguez. 

Judges and legal teams often criminalize individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness, said Siguenza. Judges order unreasonable fines and fees, which can impact whether a defendant is able to appear in court and whether they can feasibly make bail. In many cases, inability to pay means jail time. People who are already detained are more likely to be convicted or receive harsher sentences because they miss key opportunities to bargain for dismissal of charges, sentence diversion or pretrial plea negotiation, according to a 2019 Vera Institute of Justice study. Additionally, people who spend even a short time in jail, as opposed to being released pretrial, are more likely to commit a future crime.

These practices disparately affect Black, Indigenous and Latine people in Los Angeles, said Siguenza. “There has been a major lack of oversight and judicial accountability within the L.A. Superior Court system.” CourtWatch LA has the power to impact outcomes for individuals and lawyers, she continued. 

“Just by blasting on social media, and having a consistent presence in the courtroom, it allows judges to know we are watching them and that everything they do is no longer behind closed doors,” said Siguenza.

Three women stand outside a courthouse.
(left) Christine Rodriguez, Leah Perez, and Bryanna Siguenza outside the Inglewood Courthouse. (Eliza Partika/AfroLA)

Rating judges’ behavior

At monthly training sessions, CourtWatch LA volunteers are coached on the basics of L.A.’s court system and how to take good notes. They’re taught the meaning behind common court jargon and important conversations to look out for, including discussions around bail, bench warrants, or a defendant’s race or socioeconomic status. They fill out an observation sheet to identify any biases while they watch court proceedings. Some judges are known by La Defensa and court watchers for unfair treatment, if not outright misconduct, said judicial coordinator Siguenza. 

Rate My Judge, an online database created and maintained by La Defensa, has become an important way for those with court appearances and their family members to express frustrations or compliments about Superior Court judges and the treatment they encounter in court. CourtWatch reports and the experiences of others present in L.A. courtrooms are analyzed by La Defensa staff to find patterns in judges’ behavior. The goal is to sound the alarm on judges that they find have engaged in misconduct. 

No defendants showed up for their hearings on my day at the Inglewood Courthouse, which I’m told isn’t unusual. But, instead of reprimands, punitive jail time or increased bail, misdemeanor Judge Holly Hancock worked with the attorneys present to delay decisions until a later court date. Hancock is the first Black woman public defender elected to the judicial bench in LA County.  With clients who needed housing and committing crimes of survival, Hancock said she and La Defensa were on a similar mission. She was seeking a group that was also focused on reducing bail and enacting just bail practices for minor convictions. Hancock connected with La Defensa in 2021 at a forum about the judicial system, where she spoke about her 2018 campaign and the lack of public defenders running. She announced her intention to run in 2022 for an open seat, and La Defensa approached her about joining their “Defenders of Justice,” a group of public defenders running for progressive, open seats in Los Angeles County. 

“My position was always that we need to help in different ways other than just incarceration, you know, there needs to be many different alternatives. That was already happening. It was something I had said I was seeing for many years, but it was just starting to emerge in the public mind and in the budget of the legislature. We cannot just keep incarcerating and incarcerating, certainly for these minor issues,” she said.

Judge Hancock said she ensures she applies an even hand in her courtroom, and that she appreciates court watchers being there to monitor judges like herself. It holds courts accountable and encourages new attorneys, like she had been, to enter bigger courts as judges.

“Every two years, between 100 and 120 judges go up for reelection in the California court system, but rarely, if ever, are they seen on the ballot, because they are never challenged for re-election…But they [court watchers] want people to challenge the judges,” said Hancock. 

“Judges have the power to uproot people’s lives. If we don’t have the tools to hold them accountable, then what will happen?” said Gabriela Vázquez, La Defensa’s deputy director. 

Things like high bail and bench warrants, as well as inexperienced judges, can create an environment in which defendants are treated with less dignity than they deserve. 

(Screen capture of Rate My Judge)

La Defensa is working on a comprehensive report in collaboration with UCLA’s law school to be published in the coming months.  The report will include data on the courts with judges getting the most complaints, which demographics are most affected by judicial misconduct, and some of the most common complaints against judges are. 

“[Rate My Judge] gives folks an outlet to express something that they've never been able to express before. So, we are seeing people use it. People are very excited about it every single time we [do outreach outside the courthouse],” Siguenza said. “It gives them liberty, a sense that they finally have somewhere they can file complaints against the judge.” 

“Judges have the power to uproot people’s lives. If we don’t have the tools to hold them accountable, then what will happen?”

– Gabriela Vázquez, La Defensa’s deputy director

In 2022, the California State Bar received 295 complaints of misconduct. Nearly half are still pending investigation. Only summary statistics are available about complaints filed with the state. Rate My Judge is accessible to anyone, and the easy-to-use interface can be less cumbersome than the official complaint process, said Laura Coholan, a La Defensa representative. The platform also allows users to file ethics complaints, a first for non-lawyers in Los Angeles. 

La Defensa is planning awareness campaigns during election season to address some of the patterns they already see on Rate My Judge.

According to Rasaki, the group is creating Justice Report Cards that will be published and disseminated to community members via social media, digital advertisements, and hopefully, billboards during the November election season. There are also plans to distribute literature about the debate over cash bail in California, something consistently monitored in their CourtWatch observations. 

Rasaki and Siguenza both hope that by continuing to encourage volunteers and advertising the program more people will join and fill in gaps on Rate My Judge’s system. Judges in Compton, Whittier, Antelope Valley, Long Beach, Norwalk, and Los Angeles Superior Courts have the greatest number of  comments and ratings so far – all at 2 and below out of 5 stars. To get the attention of younger audiences, they’re pushing more digital engagement.

“It’s been a powerful political tool,” said Rasaki, “in terms of how we think about political education and awareness.”

The next CourtWatch LA training sessions are March 6 and 20 at 6:00 p.m. Sign up here. Learn more at Court Watch LA or subscribe to La Defensa’s newsletter.

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