Several attorneys from the Stanislaus County public defender's office moved to disqualify a local judge from more than two dozen cases last month, saying she would not give their clients a fair trial.
Court records show some deputy public defenders have steered their cases away from Judge Linda McFadden, who moved to Criminal Court from Juvenile Court in January.
McFadden was elected a Superior Court judge in 2002. Before that, she worked as a prosecutor for the district attorney's office for 13 years, heading the unit that tried child sexual assault and abuse cases.
In that time, she tried more than 200 cases before juries. One of her high-profile cases took place in 2002, when she helped to secure a life sentence for Josephine Origel, who killed 5-year-old Megan Lynn Mendez in 1998. The girl had been left in Origel's care by her heroin-addicted mother.
McFadden and her competitor in the election, now-Chief Deputy District Attorney Alan Cassidy, ran for the judgeship with a tough-on-crime platform. Each secured endorsements from a mix of law enforcement leaders and unions.
Until the election, Cassidy had worked most of his career as a defense attorney, a background that persuaded some that McFadden would be less lenient with criminals.
State law gives defense attorneys and prosecutors the right to file one affidavit per case claiming prejudice by a judge, and they don't have to give a reason.
The tactic, known as "papering" in courtroom slang, is capable of getting a judge reassigned if enough attorneys file them en masse.
"It's their right, so I would never take that personally," McFadden said Thursday. "We understand there may be reasons and those reasons are not required to be disclosed. So I never inquire about the reasons."
On average, eight such declarations were filed against the county's 18 judges during 2009, compared with 25 last month for McFadden. No judge was papered more than 30 times in all of last year.
Nearly all the affidavits against McFadden were filed by the public defender's office.
Public Defender Tim Bazar said the challenges filed against McFadden do not amount to a boycott from his office.
"We are not doing that," Bazar said. "We have not done that in the 14 years that I've been here."
But, he added, papering "is not a right we have to be reluctant to exercise. We pride ourselves in vigorously representing anyone who we're appointed to represent."
Some deputy public defenders could not be reached or declined to speak publicly about the issue.
Prosecutor background cited
Among the high-profile cases on which McFadden has been disqualified is that of Jessica Mae Betts, who is accused of murder. Authorities say she dumped her newborn daughter in a Turlock trash bin.
One prosecutor said she expected McFadden to be challenged on many such cases because of her background as a crimes-against-children prosecutor before she was elected to the bench.
Defense attorneys certainly aren't the only ones to exercise their right to paper judges in Stanislaus County.
In recent years, Judge Roger Beauchesne was transferred to a civil post after being heavily papered by local prosecutors, court officials said.
The same practice made headlines last month in Santa Clara County, where the district attorney took the rare step of publicly rebuking a sitting judge and instructing her staff to stop bringing cases in front of her.
Gerald F. Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor and former dean, said if done in a large number of cases, papering can have a chilling effect on judges.
"I think that has potential for a lot of mischief," Uelmen said. "It sends a bad message to the public."
Stanislaus County Superior Court Executive Officer Mike Tozzi said the number of challenges filed against McFadden was not unusual, given her recent transfer to the downtown court after a more than four-year stint at Juvenile Hall.
"Was it expected? Yes. Will it go away? You hope so," Tozzi said.
Tozzi said he was not aware of any adverse effects to the court backlog by pulling McFadden off the cases last month. She handled about 185 cases in January, Tozzi said. He did not have a comparison available, but said that number of cases is standard for the county's judges.
"Any form of papering by lawyers of a judge has to affect the other judges because the case has to be transferred to another judge," he said. "It's a normal process that occurs daily in every courtroom around the state."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.