See the bottom of this item for an update, now that we've heard back from lawyer James Disney.
Thirteen years after presiding over a Concord attorney’s divorce proceedings, now-retired Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Peter Spinetta still feels a need to watch his back.
Late Tuesday, San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal upheld a three-year restraining order that prevents lawyer James Disney — whose 1994 divorce was handled by Spinetta — from further bothering the judge or his wife.
Writing for the court (.pdf), Justice Henry Needham Jr. held there was “substantial evidence” Disney had “seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed the judge” for “no legitimate purpose.”
Justices Barbara Jones and Linda Gemello concurred.
According to the ruling, Disney has harassed Spinetta and his wife for several years, confronting them in 2004 at a Home Depot in Concord, where he allegedly yelled at the couple and called Spinetta “stupid.” The ruling also noted that Disney mailed several insulting letters to the judge in 2006, showed up at two social events in the Spinettas’ residential community in Rossmoor and appeared in the judge’s courtroom “once or twice a quarter for six years” to glare when he had no official business to be there.
“A reasonable trier of fact,” Needham wrote in Tuesday’s unpublished ruling, “could conclude, upon clear and convincing evidence, that Disney’s course of conduct was harassing, willful, knowing and without legitimate purpose, and was the type that would cause, and in fact did cause, substantial emotional distress.”
Disney, who got his State Bar license in 1964 after graduating from the University of San Francisco School of Law, couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.
In Tuesday’s ruling (Spinetta v. Disney, A116153), the appeal court noted that Disney argued that the restraining order, issued in October 2006, would violate his free speech rights and his right to practice law in the public courts, among other things.
The appellate court rejected Disney’s arguments, noting, for one, that the restraining order wasn’t directed only at his “written ridicule” of Spinetta, but also the fact he had publicly confronted the judge outside the courtroom. The court also held that the order didn’t prevent Disney from practicing law, but merely requires him to go through the Martinez courthouse’s regular security screening and to advise security personnel when he had business in Spinetta’s courtroom (However, Spinetta retired from the Contra Costa court earlier this year.)
The appeal court also upheld $1,200 in attorney fees against Disney.
Update: In a phone call on Thursday, Disney expressed astonishment at the appellate court’s ruling, saying “oh my god” several times during the conversation.
“I think they are protecting a judge,” he said of the ruling. “I think they are personally biased and … god, this is strange.”
Disney admitted he had sent rude letters to Spinetta, but said he never intended to cause any physical harm.
“I have been angry about him, so I wrote some letters to him and I called him a jerk,” he said. “I said that some judges had their head up their ass, thinking they are on a pedestal. My experience with him was past, so I was just being critical of him as a person.”
Disney said he was especially upset that the appeal court upheld a restraining order that was based on written declarations and not other testimony. He complained that he hadn’t been given a chance to cross-examine the security officers who made the declarations about his supposed behavior.
“This is a teaching lesson,” Disney said. “It teaches an attorney — in this case, me — about a client who has told the truth and the courts won’t believe it.”
He said he was certain that any lawyer who read the transcript of the court proceeding in which the restraining order was issued would be “quite surprised.”
Disney vowed to petition the California Supreme Court for review and to seek certioriari in the United States Supreme Court if necessary.
“In my opinion,” he said, “this court is not following the law.”
— Mike McKee