Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009 | U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller was presiding over a bench trial Tuesday morning when his courtroom deputy discreetly passed him a note. Miller quickly called for a short recess.
The note said, simply: The Inzunza order has come down.
So the judge who made big headlines in 2005 by overturning a jury’s guilty verdict in a high-profile political corruption case, and then spent four years out on a limb as his ruling was criticized and legally challenged, was about to find out if he’d gotten it right.
It was across-the-board vindication.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of former San Diego City Councilman Ralph Inzunza. And, perhaps most importantly to Miller, the panel affirmed his bold and controversial decision to reverse the jury’s guilty verdict for ex-Councilman Michael Zucchet.
Miller declined to be interviewed, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss a case that was still pending before him, since the government could re-try Zucchet on two counts.
Colleagues, however, praised the veteran federal judge for having the courage to make a difficult decision for the sake of justice.
“It’s never popular if a judge sets aside a jury’s verdict,” said U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan, a colleague of Miller’s. “I’m sure he agonized over this and thought he was right, and he was. I’m sure he feels vindicated and justified in what he did. An impartial group of judges looked at it and agreed with him.”
Inzunza and Zucchet were convicted in July 2005 of scheming with strip club owner Michael Galardi, consultant Lance Malone and others to trade political action for campaign contributions.
In his decision to acquit Zucchet a few months later, Miller ruled that there was insufficient evidence of a quid-pro-quo agreement between Zucchet and the strip club owner or his representatives. At the same hearing, Inzunza was sentenced to 21 months in prison. He has been free pending the outcome of his appeal. It’s likely Inzunza will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case.
Miller ruled at that hearing in November 2005 that there was no clear relationship between campaign contributions Zucchet received in 2001 and 2002 from Malone and the action he took on behalf of Malone in 2003.
That action occurred at a public meeting of the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee. At Malone’s behest, Zucchet referred adult entertainment matters to the City Attorney’s Office for review.
Malone arranged for a man posing as a concerned citizen to appear before the committee, asking that the politicians increase the required distances separating strip clubs from schools, churches and other clubs. The man, who gave a bogus address, turned out to be an employee of one of Galardi’s Las Vegas strip clubs.
The distance requirement was intended to be a distraction. The real plan was to sneak the no-touching matter onto the agenda and ultimately get it repealed.
The appellate judges agreed with Miller that the evidence was not sufficient to connect the campaign contributions to the action Zucchet took at the meeting, noting the time gap.
In the courtroom, when Judge Miller shocked everyone by reversing the jury’s guilty verdicts against Zucchet, confused spectators looked around to make sure they were hearing him correctly. Then there were gasps, and some tears and hugging. And some blank stares.
As the news spread, the judge that was held in such high regard by jurors during the three-month trial was then criticized by some of them in the newspaper and on television.
Some jurors are still stinging over the reversal and remain firm in their belief they did the right thing by convicting Zucchet.
“I read the opinion and I’m glad they supported us on our decision for Inzunza, but I still disagree with the argument that Zucchet was not a player until much later,” said jury foreman Kenny Hill in an e-mail message. “He may not have had as much communication with Malone early on, but he knew there was some type of plan and agreed to participate almost from the beginning. He wasn’t always as enthusiastic about it but when the time came to perform, he was there.”
Hill referred to the now infamous committee meeting with the bogus speaker. He balked at the judges’ notion that Zucchet was never on board with the scheme between Inzunza and Malone.
“The question they failed to ask, which the jury did, was: Why did he take an action that he knew was bogus and would not lead to the repeal of the no touch ordinance? Besides, he said he would not support the repeal if the Police did not support it. He got first hand information directly from the Lt. of Vice that they did not,” Hill wrote.
“Maybe he never seemed to be on board, but he sure performed like he was when time came,” he continued.
A judge never sets out to negate a jury’s finding, Whelan said.
“We don’t go there thinking we’re going to let jurors give us and advisory opinion and decide if they’re right or wrong,” Whelan said.
When Whelan heard about his colleague’s decision back in 2005, he said he had this reaction:
“I thought, I’m sure he’s right. I hope he’s right. He better be right. No question the public’s going to be very upset. … I think he made the bench and judges look good. I’m proud to be his colleague.”