California Bar Journal
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Judge accused
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in connection with statements made by an applicant for the bench,” said commission director and chief counsel Victoria Henley.

The commission accuses Couwenberg of lying about where he attended school, what degrees he earned, his employment history and his military record, including claims that he served in Vietnam, received a Purple Heart and participated in covert CIA operations in southeast Asia and Africa. He also is accused of omitting some information, including failing the bar examination five times.

In a six-count notice, Couwenberg, 55, is charged with violating three canons of the Code of Judicial Ethics: canon 1, upholding the integrity of the judiciary; canon 2A, promoting public confidence in the judiciary; and canon 5B, knowingly misrepresenting his qualifications.

In a written response to the allegations, Couwenberg stood by the story he told commission lawyers in January about his participation in the mysterious covert operations, said some of the details about his background were given during informal or humorous conversations, could not recall or specifically denied other claims, and admitted that some information on questionnaires submitted in connection with his application to be a judge were not true. He said none of the information or testimony was intentionally falsified.

According to the commission’s notice, Couwenberg provided false information on the Personal Data Questionnaire (PDQ) submitted to the governor’s office when he was seeking an appointment to the bench in 1996 and on a judges’ questionnaire filled out before he was sworn in in 1997, made misstatements about his background to another judge and to a group of attorneys in the courthouse, and gave false information to the commission in both testimony and by letter.


Couwenberg’s PDQ said he attended “Cal. St. University L.A.” for two years and received a master’s degree, and stated that he went to LaVerne College Law Center from 1973 to 1976. In fact, the commission charges, he attended LaVerne from 1970 to 1973 and was admitted to the State Bar in 1976 after failing the bar exam five times.

He also incorrectly said he attended Loyola Law School, misstated the dates he attended California State Polytechnic University, and omitted his attendance at two other schools, according to the charges. Further, the charges allege he never attended Cal State Los Angeles nor received a master’s degree from any school.

Couwenberg made similar misstatements in a judges’ data questionnaire filled out just before he was sworn in as a judge, the commission charges. In that questionnaire, he falsely stated he was awarded a bachelor of science degree from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and incorrectly listed Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as a previous employer, according to the charges.

He also said he served in the Navy, when in fact he was in the Naval Reserves, and claimed membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a group for which he was ineligible, the commission says.

In an interview with another judge in preparation for his August 1997 swearing-in ceremony, the charges allege, Couwenberg said he had been a corporal in the Army, served in Vietnam for 16 months, and was awarded a Purple Heart. None of that information is true, the commission charges.

Implied combat injury

Later that same year, according to the charges, Couwenberg said from the bench he was late for court because of a medical appointment for shrapnel in his groin, “implying that you had been wounded in military combat. (You had never received such an injury.)” The charges also allege that Couwenberg falsely told attorneys he had attended college on the GI bill and has a master’s degree in psychology.

In two letters to the commission in 1998 and 1999, the commission charges Couwenberg falsely implied participation in covert CIA operations in Vietnam and/or Laos.

Appearing in the commission’s offices last January, Couwenberg reiterated his CIA connections in southeast Asia and added that he “made a delivery of funds or documents for the CIA in or about 1984 to a person in Africa,” according to the charges. “You had not been affiliated with the CIA as you testified, nor had you been with the CIA in any capacity at any time.”

Bogus education claims

In addition, Couwenberg testified under oath that he received a master’s degree in psychology from Cal State University at Los Angeles; the charges say he never attended the school or has a master’s degree of any kind.

In his response to the charges, Couwenberg stood by the covert operation story, but said he “cannot be sure what government organization sent him to the Far East. It was at best an assumption, and remains a guess, that the agency that recruited respondent was the CIA.”

He also acknowledged that he does not hold a master’s degree, did not serve in the Army in Vietnam, and did not attend Loyola Law School, Cal State Los Angeles or Caltech. Nor was he injured in combat overseas and he did not receive the Purple Heart.

Couwenberg denied that he deliberately misstated his credentials, and attributed some of the information to be the result of misunderstandings or humorous exchanges. He denied saying he served in Vietnam in the Army or that he received a Purple Heart. He was in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, he said.

According to Biljanna Sivanov, a staffer for the Commission on Judicial Appointments Evaluation, the educational and military backgrounds listed on resumes submitted to the governor’s office and JNE are not verified.

JNE examines candidates’ membership records with the State Bar, which lists undergraduate and law school information. The bar’s admission’s office contacts law schools, verifies dates of attendance and receives transcripts. Admissions applications are submitted under penalty of perjury.

The bar’s membership office, however, does not verify academic information, nor is that information submitted under penalty of perjury, although the attorney must “declare” the information is correct.

Sivanov said JNE and the governor’s office are considering revisions to the judicial selection process, including verifying academic and military records and requiring candidates to submit applications under penalty of perjury.

Routine requests

Sivanov said JNE routinely sends out 400 or more letters seeking comment about judicial applicants, but does not monitor how many are returned. A firm listed as a previous employer may or may not have responded and it likely would not know from a very general letter that it was listed as an employer.

Under Commission on Judicial Performance procedures, the Supreme Court will appoint a group of special masters to hold a hearing on the charges against Couwenberg. The commission can remove, censure, publicly admonish or privately reprove a judge, who can appeal to the Supreme Court.

No hearing has been scheduled.