It's time to judge the judges


Welcome to San Diego. Where a former mayor, convicted on 12 counts of perjury and forced from office, holds forth as the city's most popular radio talk show host.

Where one of the nation's leading district attorneys was defeated for a seventh term because of one wrongful prosecution

And where three former Superior Court judges and a prominent lawyer are charged with bribery.

It isn't Orange County yet. But it's close.

The San Diego judicial corruption case is the largest since 12 judges were jailed in the Greylord sting operation in Chicago 10 years ago.

A federal indictment charges ex-Judges Michael Greer, James Malkus and G. Dennis Adams with accepting more than $100,000 in bribes from attorney Patrick Frega over the last 10 years. The latter three are charged with mail fraud and Frega faces additional racketeering charges.

Greer, a former presiding judge, has pleaded guilty to taking a bribe and was offered probation in exchange for his testimony against the others.

The U.S. attorney's office alleges the three judges assisted the flamboyant Frega, once voted San Diego's trial lawyer of the year, in more than 40 cases involving millions of dollars.

Greer and Malkus resigned in 1993 following an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance. Adams was ousted by the state Supreme Court in 1995.

Along with the three indicted judges, three other judges received minor admonishments from the commission. The press and public criticized the commission for being slow, secretive and inclined to favor judges. This was a factor in a successful statewide referendum to add more public members to the commission and to open up its proceedings.

Already there is strong public reaction to two minor aspects of the investigation -- Greer's proposed probation and Adams' attempt to obtain a court-appointed lawyer at public expense.

Two much more important questions remain. How good is the government's case? And how complete?

Some attorneys question federal intrusion into state court corruption. Others argue the government has had time to build a careful case and that Greer's testimony could be damning to his former colleagues. Defense attorneys say the government may have a hard time tying gifts by lawyers to favorable decisions by judges. Almost everyone agrees the mail fraud charges would be relatively easy to prove -- at least at the trial court level.

The announcement by U.S. Attorney Alan D. Bersin that "the government anticipates no further indictments" brought a huge sigh of relief from San Diego's legal community. This was particularly true of judges who must run for election in 1998.

Bersin said San Diego judges and attorneys serve the public with distinction and added:

"The corruption alleged is limited to the parties named; no other judges or attorneys are now, or have ever been, targets of this investigation."

But what about the other three judges who were admonished by the state commission? Surely they were investigated by the FBI.

The confusion may come over Bersin's use of the term "targets of this investigation." Narrowly interpreted, it could mean only those judges who were singled out for indictment

More serious are the questions raised by some judges and attorneys who gave information to the FBI about other instances of corruption. They are asking if and why the investigation stopped with these indictments.

In other words, is judicial corruption really contained or does the U.S. attorney just say it is?

Peter Kaye is a journalist in San Diego and a public member of the Board of Governors.