Chief judge: Vallejo city attorney’s letter to court was ‘improper’

Vallejo City Attorney Claudia Quintana

City of Vallejo

Vallejo City Attorney Claudia Quintana

Vallejo City Attorney Claudia Quintana contacted each judge of the Solano County Superior Court this March and urged them to address the issue of illegal dumping “seriously and efficiently,” even as the city sought to prosecute half a dozen such cases here, according to correspondence released in response to a public records request by Open Vallejo.

The March 21, 2019 letter was not sent to the defendants in those cases or their attorneys, according to the records released by the city, prompting Presiding Judge John B. Ellis to remind Quintana of the ethical prohibition on one-sided communications under California’s attorney rules.

As your office has been prosecuting dumping cases in the Vallejo Court over the last two months, it was improper to unilaterally request the Court to “address this issue seriously and efficiently” and to hold “those found accountable responsible.” Although you did not address any one particular case, the only conclusion that can be drawn from this letter is that you are attempting to influence the Court in how these cases are handled.

— Solano County Presiding Judge John B. Ellis

“As your office has been prosecuting dumping cases in the Vallejo court over the last two months,” Ellis wrote on April 2, “it was improper to unilaterally request the court to ‘address this issue seriously and efficiently’ and to hold ‘those found accountable responsible.’ Although you did not address any one particular case, the only conclusion that can be drawn from this letter is that you are attempting to influence the court in how these cases are handled.”

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Citing his own obligations under the rules of judicial ethics, Ellis told Quintana he was forwarding a copy of the March 21 letter to the Solano County public defender’s office, which represented defendants in the criminal cases brought by Quintana’s office. He also suggested that Quintana disclose the letter to defendants and their counsel in any future dumping cases brought in Solano County courts.

The presiding judge also declined an invitation from Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan to enter into an ongoing “partnership” to address code enforcement issues in the city. “The court cannot enter into a partnership with another branch of government,” he wrote. “Furthermore, it is the role of the court to provide a forum for the fair resolution of disputes. It is not the role of the court to advocate for a particular outcome on a particular issue.”

Quintana responded on April 9 to explain that she did not intend to influence the court. “Frankly, I am surprised that you drew that conclusion,” Quintana wrote. “It did not occur to me that this would be controversial.” The intent behind the letter, Quintana said, was to “generally educate or remind judicial officers, who are not residents of Vallejo, that Vallejo has a new program that is important to Vallejo’s citizens and elected officials.”

After denying that she purposely left the public defender off the recipient list to her March 21 letter, Quintana offered her own assessment of the concerns raised by Solano County’s chief judge.

“[T]he content of your letter stops just short of accusing me of wrongdoing, and I believe that the content and tone of your letter is unfairly prejudicial,” Quintana wrote. “Again, I am sorry that my letter was not received in the spirit with which it was sent.”

In an April 17 response, Ellis explained that while he did not think Quintana intended to act unethically, her March 21 letter should nonetheless be disclosed to future defendants charged with illegal dumping “to cure the ex parte problem” the letter created. He also described receiving calls from other Solano County judges who expressed their own concerns about the March 21 letter. The court, he wrote, “must avoid the appearance of being political or one-sided.”

Read Quintana’s March 21 letter, and her correspondence with Judge Ellis about its propriety, here.

This post has been updated to reflect that the city has now released Quintana’s March 21 letter, approximately one day after other records were released. The supplemental disclosure occurred following an inquiry from this news organization. A private attorney representing the city says the letter was inadvertently omitted.

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