Judge Ronald Hansen has struck down a motion by defense counsel to disqualify the entire Merced Superior Court bench, including himself, from a Los Banos school board corruption case.
In addition to dismissing the motion, which claimed all Merced County judicial officers have conflicts of interest with witnesses, Hansen explained his relationships, or lack thereof, with those witnesses.
Los Banos Unified School District trustee Tommy Jones and Greg Opinski, a Merced-area contractor, face felony charges of bribing school trustee Dominic Falasco to vote in favor of awarding Opinski a contract to expand Mercey Springs Elementary School.
Jones and Opinski on Nov. 21 motioned to disqualify all judicial officers of the Merced Superior Court in the case.
The motion and declaration, filed by Jones’ attorney Kevin Little and joined by Opinski’s attorney Jeff Hammerschmidt, claims that all county Superior Court judges have a conflict of interest with presumed witnesses Falasco, who is a prominent Los Banos defense attorney, and Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, according to the motion.
It also claims that judges have previously disqualified themselves in past legal matters involving Opinski. Hammerschmidt has said disqualifying the whole bench and trying the case in another county would expedite the case, avoiding examinations of each judge’s conflicts of interest with Falasco, Morse and Opinski.
Hansen denied the motion Monday in a court order, citing case law while stating that the motion wasn’t written “under penalty of perjury and therefore is fatally defective.”
He also dismissed the notion that a judge’s familiarity with a witness is grounds for disqualification, noting that “if this were the standard, judges in small- to medium-sized counties would be hard-pressed to hear very many cases,” the order states.
But Hansen commented on several of the conflict-of-interest claims in the order; he clarified several connections with the two witnesses that may be perceived as conflicts of interest.
Hansen’s contact with Falasco has been limited to cases in which Falasco has been appointed as conflicts counsel or retained as counsel in criminal cases, according to the order, denying any social interaction or personal involvement with him.
Hansen rarely encounters Morse in the courtroom, according to the order. He denied insinuations that Morse helped him with his judgeship, and said he has met Morse only on an “infrequent” basis.
Hansen acknowledged that Morse was present during hearings over which Hansen was presiding involving a family member of Morse, according to the order. But he felt it didn’t constitute a conflict of interest.
Hansen said Opinski was a member of a stock-investment club to which he belongs, and Opinski may also be a member of a golf club to which Hansen belongs, but he denied socializing with Opinski.
In the order, Hansen stated he accepted disqualifying himself on two previous cases involving Opinski, neither because of his own perceptions of conflict of interest.
Hansen also stated in the order that he doesn’t know Jones.
The striking of the motion may not be appealed, the order states, although it may be reviewed within 10 days by a court of appeal.
Jones’ and Opinski’s arraignment on bribery charges is scheduled to continue at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 6 at the Merced County Courthouse.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562