Patterico's Pontifications


A Little Story About the Fair People at the Dog Trainer

Filed under: Dog Trainer — Patterico @ 8:01 am

Today I’d like to explain one of the reasons that I think the Los Angeles Dog Trainer is an ideologically biased paper. To some extent, my story is a personal one. It’s rather long, but I think it’s worth your while. I’ve wanted to get this off my chest for some time.

The bottom line: the Dog Trainer gleefully repeated slanderous allegations about a judge for whom I clerked, in no fewer than sixteen separate stories printed over the course of five years. The paper never once mentioned the controversy without repeating the content of the false allegations — even in stories having nothing to do with the allegations. Meanwhile, the fact that a three-judge panel found the allegations baseless went unreported in virtually all the stories — as was the fact that the left-wing civil rights attorney who leveled the allegations has been disciplined more than once for ethical violations.

Here are the details:

As my profile reflects, I was once law clerk to the Hon. William D. Keller, U.S. District Judge for the Central District of California. I admit to being biased in favor of Judge Keller. He is a wonderful man and a great judge. He has something of a reputation for being hard on attorneys, because he maintains strict control of his courtroom, and isn’t afraid to sanction lawyers when appropriate. (Many judges are overly timid about levying sanctions, even when they are clearly warranted.) However, in person Judge Keller is down-to-earth, approachable, and has a great sense of humor. He is also a highly principled man who follows the law even when he disagrees with it. I will always regard the year I spent clerking for him as one of the highlights of my career.

The second character in this story is a fellow named Stephen Yagman, a civil rights attorney who has made a career of suing the LAPD. He has called the LAPD a “Frankenstein monster” and Daryl Gates “the Devil.” Yagman is an unsavory character who has been disciplined for ethics violations such as misappropriation of funds, charging of unconscionable fees, and paying clients late. In yet another case where Yagman was suspended for an ethical violation, the State Bar “suggested that Yagman get counseling for his hostile behavior toward a client.”

Yagman has made many intemperate comments about moderate or conservative judges, in an apparent attempt to force those judges to recuse themselves — which would have the effect of steering Yagman’s civil rights cases towards sympathetic liberal judges. For example, Yagman has called U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie a “fucking fat ugly asshole” and “fascist judge” with a “weird-shaped head” that “looked like a Martian.” He said U.S. District Judge Manuel Real suffered from “mental disorders” and compared him to Torquemada. He called California Supreme Court Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas a racist and an anti-Semite. (His attacks weren’t limited to judges — he also called Tom Bradley an “Uncle Tom” and Warren Christopher a “weasel.”)

This strategy has proved effective for Yagman at times. At a happy hour for law clerks, the late Judge Harry Hupp (a beloved figure and possibly the most respected judge in the Central District at the time) told me that Yagman had once accused him of taking money to throw a case. Hupp told me that he had responded by recusing himself on all future cases involving Yagman — which is, of course, precisely what Yagman hoped Hupp would do.

With this history of making rash, ill-considered, and even slanderous comments, it came as little surprise when Yagman made several false and ridiculous allegations about Judge Keller. And it was even less surprising that the Dog Trainer seized upon the story with undisguised delight.

You see, despite the obvious problems with Yagman’s credibility, Yagman is a darling of the Dog Trainer. The reason is simple: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If anyone hates the LAPD as much as Stephen Yagman, it’s the editors of the Los Angeles Dog Trainer. Accordingly, Yagman is generally treated as a civil rights hero in the Dog Trainer. He once appeared on a Dog Trainer list of the “Top 103 Most Influential People.” The little matter of Yagman’s disciplinary sanctions for ethical violations doesn’t come up too often. It doesn’t fit the agenda, you see.

For the same reasons that the Dog Trainer has always liked Stephen Yagman, the paper has never liked Judge Keller. Keller was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Central District by President Nixon, and U.S. District Judge by President Reagan — a pedigree that automatically makes him suspect in the eyes of the Dog Trainer editors. He applies the law regardless of his personal preference — the classic definition of a conservative judge. And, as you know if you have been reading this blog, the Dog Trainer doesn’t like conservative judges.

It pains me to repeat the slanders uttered by Yagman about Judge Keller. But you won’t understand how hateful Yagman’s comments were unless I tell you what he actually said. (Yagman later apologized to Judge Keller for making these comments. The famously stubborn civil rights attorney would never have made this apology if the comments had been true. However, as we will see, the comments were repeated in the Dog Trainer on numerous occasions — both before and after Yagman’s apology.)

The most startling accusations were that Judge Keller was “drunk on the bench” and “anti-Semitic.” Yagman also called Keller “dishonest.” Yagman had absolutely no basis for the ridiculous statements that Judge Keller was “drunk on the bench” or “dishonest” — accusations that are beneath contempt. Yagman’s so-called basis for calling Judge Keller “anti-Semitic” was the fact that Judge Keller had sanctioned Yagman and a couple of other lawyers who happened to be Jewish. To my knowledge, Yagman never showed that these sanctions were erroneously imposed, or that Judge Keller has sanctioned only Jewish lawyers. Yagman’s complaint was knee-jerk victimology at its most crass level. It also ignores the obvious point that many lawyers are Jewish — so any judge who is not afraid to sanction lawyers may well end up sanctioning some Jewish lawyers.

I worked closely with Judge Keller for a year. He is not anti-Semitic. I personally know a Jewish lawyer who clerked for Keller who agrees with me that Yagman’s allegations of anti-Semitism are rubbish. I have never heard of any of Judge Keller’s Jewish law clerks having come to a different conclusion. But when Yagman was confronted with the fact that Keller had employed Jewish law clerks, Yagman replied that Hitler had used Jewish doctors. As we all know, there’s nothing like a good Hitler analogy to keep the discussion on a high level.

Unsurprisingly, a disciplinary panel consisting of three judges from the Central District found that Yagman’s comments were patently false, and that he had baselessly impugned the integrity of the bench. The panel found that Yagman had made these comments for the specific purpose of causing Judge Keller to recuse himself on any future case involving Yagman. (Why not? It had worked with Judge Hupp.) The panel suspended Yagman from federal practice for a period of two years.

The case found its way to the Ninth Circuit, where Judge Alex Kozinski wrote an opinion that — while criticizing Yagman’s comments as “harsh and intemperate and in no way to be condoned” — reversed the disciplinary sanction on First Amendment grounds. (Judge Kozinski said that the three-judge panel had incorrectly put the burden on Yagman to prove the remarks were true. Thus, Yagman’s total lack of evidence supporting the remarks was not an adequate basis to punish him.)

And the Dog Trainer covered the saga from beginning to end. All told, the paper mentioned Yagman’s comments in sixteen separate stories printed over the course of five years. And each and every time, the stories repeated the slanderous comments. You might think I’m exaggerating, but this is a matter of public record. Here are the dates of the stories and some representative quotes. (In most cases, the stories were not available on the Web, but were accessed on Nexis.) As you read these, put yourself in Judge Keller’s position. Imagine that you are a judge, and an ethically challenged lawyer has said these things about you — and the local paper joyfully repeats the substance of his slanders in article after article after article:

September 10, 1993:

In June, 1991, shortly after Keller attempted to discipline him for alleged misconduct in a civil trial, Yagman was quoted by the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, as saying Keller “has a penchant for sanctioning Jewish lawyers. . . . I find this to be evidence of anti-Semitism.”

In addition, that same month Yagman wrote a letter to Prentice Hall, a publisher of judicial profiles, branding Keller “ignorant, dishonest, ill-tempered . . . a bully, and probably one of the worst judges in the United States.”

September 11, 1993:

The Venice attorney was testifying in a virtually unprecedented hearing at which an obscure disciplinary committee is seeking to bar him from practicing in federal court in seven Southern California counties because he accused U.S. District Judge William D. Keller of being anti-Semitic, a buffoon and “probably one of the worst judges in the United States.”

May 20, 1994:

A special panel of three Los Angeles federal district court judges has ruled that Venice civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman “impugned the integrity of the court” by accusing one of their colleagues of being anti-Semitic, drunk on the bench, “ignorant, dishonest . . . a bully and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

June 5, 1994:

His current troubles started after he accused a federal judge, William D. Keller, of being anti-Semitic, drunk on the bench, dishonest and “one of the worst judges in the United States.”

June 21, 1994:

Venice civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman contends that he violated no canon of ethics and should not be sanctioned for his withering criticism of U.S. District Judge William D. Keller, whom he accused of being anti-Semitic, drunk on the bench, “ignorant, dishonest . . . a bully and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

July 13, 1994:

The suspension stems from Yagman’s criticism of U.S. District Judge William D. Keller, whom the attorney accused of being anti-Semitic, drunk on the bench, “dishonest . . . a bully and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

July 21, 1994:

Yagman had accused Keller of being anti-Semitic, drunk on the bench, “ignorant, dishonest . . . a bully . . . and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

November 2, 1994:

(Among other things, Yagman accused the judge of anti-Semitism and labeled him ‘ignorant, dishonest . . . a bully . . . and one of the worst judges in the United States.)

November 3, 1994:

The lower court panel ruled that Yagman had “impugned the integrity” of the court by making blistering and unfounded charges about their colleague, U.S. District Judge William D. Keller — including accusing him of being anti-Semitic, “ignorant, dishonest . . . a bully on the bench and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

May 31, 1995:

The closely watched case stemmed from Yagman’s criticism of U.S. District Judge William D. Keller, whom Yagman called anti-Semitic, “dishonest . . . a bully and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

September 27, 1995:

Yagman, quoted at the time in the Daily Journal, said Keller “has a penchant for sanctioning Jewish lawyers,” which was “evidence of anti-Semitism.”

November 13, 1996:

Yagman accused Keller of being “one of the worst judges in the United States.”

November 13, 1997:

More recently, he was briefly ordered suspended from federal court practice, a decision that subsequently was reversed, after calling U.S. District Judge William Keller “dishonest . . . a bully and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

April 20, 1998:

A special panel of federal trial judges suspended Yagman from practicing in the Los Angeles federal district court for two years after he called U.S. District Judge William D. Keller anti-Semitic, “dishonest . . . a bully and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

June 28, 1998:

in a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Daily Journal, Yagman said that U.S. District Judge William D. Keller had a penchant for anti-Semitism.

July 17, 1998:

In 1994, the Venice-based lawyer was suspended from practicing in the Los Angeles federal court after he called U.S. District Judge William D. Keller anti-Semitic, dishonest, a bully and one of the worst judges in the country.

December 15, 1998:

Yagman was “suspended by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for two years in 1994 for calling federal Judge William D. Keller an anti-Semitic bully.”

It was not necessary to repeat the particulars of Yagman’s slanders in each and every one of these sixteen stories. The paper was under no obligation to print — again and again and again — scurrilous accusations that the editors knew had no basis in fact.

Keep in mind: this is the same paper that deleted a statement from a George Will column that said: “It is reasonable to believe that [Bill Clinton] was a rapist 15 years before becoming president.” So we know that the paper’s editors know how to refrain from repeating accusations that they believe to be baseless — at least when the target of those allegations is a liberal.

But Judge Keller is no liberal. And when you look at the evident glee with which Yagman’s lies about Judge Keller were repeated in the Dog Trainer — time and time and time again — the conclusion is irresistible that the editors at the Dog Trainer just plain liked seeing these nasty falsehoods in their paper.

And so the editors repeated Yagman’s comments as many times as possible, in any context where they could sneak them in, no matter how irrelevant. On November 13, 1996, more than a year after the controversy had ended, the paper dredged up Yagman’s slanders yet again — in a story about a case that had nothing whatsoever to do with Stephen Yagman. The paper’s goal was clear: this judge will never handle another high-profile case again without our reminding you that he was once called an anti-Semite who conducted court proceedings while intoxicated.

Critically, the paper did not consistently inform its readers that Yagman had no basis for these statements. Remember: a three-judge panel had specifically ruled that Yagman’s statements lacked any factual basis. Yet that ruling was reported once and then quickly forgotten. Once Yagman won in the Ninth Circuit, he was treated by the L.A. Times as having been vindicated — even though the Ninth Circuit never found that Yagman had any factual basis for his statements. Thus, readers were often misled into thinking that the Ninth Circuit had agreed, if not with Yagman’s tone, then at least with the substance of what he had said.

Meanwhile, the stories soft-pedaled the facts that show Yagman is unbalanced. Only a couple of the sixteen stories — in particular the one from June 28, 1998 (a profile of Yagman published years after the controversy with Judge Keller had ended) — make any significant attempt to set forth in detail the extensive evidence that Yagman is a loudmouth with a history of ethical improprieties. But the Dog Trainer has never once reported — even in that story — Yagman’s statement quoted above calling Judge Rafeedie a “fucking fat ugly asshole.” That comment, more than any other he has made, makes it clear that Yagman is not a heroic champion of free speech, but rather just a low-class loudmouth. Can’t let the readers know about that.

Also, only four of the sixteen stories cited even mentioned that Yagman had ever been disciplined for reasons other than his criticism of Judge Keller. Even then, the articles sugar-coated Yagman’s improprieties by describing them in general, uncritical terms. For example, the December 15, 1998 story said that Yagman had been suspended for having “allegedly” overcharged a client. There was no journalistic reason for using the word “allegedly” — the State Bar had made a specific finding that Yagman had charged unconscionable fees in a direct and conscious violation of a state ethical statute.

But the paper clearly didn’t want to criticize its golden child. Most of the stories portrayed Yagman as a tell-it-like-it-is, anti-establishment hero — the “Bad Boy of the Federal Courthouse,” as one story put it — with nary a mention of his ethical transgressions. When Yagman and fellow traveler Erwin Chemerinsky sued over the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo, Yagman’s status as civil rights hero reached its pinnacle. Yagman was favorably quoted in Dog Trainer stories pontificating about the meaning of the American flag, and his ethical transgressions never came up — not once.

The moral of the whole sick affair is well summarized in a story I first heard from a federal judge in Dallas named Jerry Buchmeyer. According to Judge Buchmeyer, LBJ (who was then running against Nixon for the presidency) decided that he wanted to spread the rumor that Nixon “fucked pigs.” An aide said: “Well, that’s ridiculous. Why would you want to spread that rumor?” To which LBJ replied: “I just wanna hear him deny it.”

That’s the no-win position that Judge Keller was placed in by the Dog Trainer. Judge Keller could either refuse to comment (which is what he did) — or comment, and look even worse. It’s an unfair position to be in — and the paper put Judge Keller in that position sixteen separate times.

The result of all of this: the paper advanced its consistently liberal agenda. A loudmouthed and ethically questionable attorney became a hero. The truth was twisted beyond all recognition. And a good man’s reputation was dragged through the mud — again, and again, and again, and again, and again . . .

All in a day’s work for the sober and professional journalists down there at your local Dog Trainer.

One Response to “A Little Story About the Fair People at the Dog Trainer

  1. […] Read this post of mine from June 2004. It pretty much rips that theory to shreds — and further explains my love for Stephen Yagman. […]

    Patterico’s Pontifications » L.A. Times Lionizes Stephen Yagman Yet Again (421107)

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