Can a presiding judge disqualify an entire bench? The answer is a decisive “no”, according to the Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions, the ethical rule is that no judge may decide if another judge is disqualified.

But they also gave presiding judges some options for handling situations that might cause embarrassment, for example, if a local judge’s family member was involved in a criminal case.

According to Justice Douglas Miller, committee vice-chair, “This advice resolves the question of who ultimately has the authority to say a judge is disqualified. The ethical rule is the same for trial court judges as it is for appellate justices—only they themselves can decide if they’re disqualified.”  

Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye also provides a range of administrative options to support trial court presiding judges through her Constitutional role as Chief Justice of California and the Assigned Judges Program:

  • She may assign a judge from another county to hear a matter that all of the local judges have decided they are disqualified from hearing
  • A presiding judge may assign:
    • a matter to a retired judge, without polling the local judges about disqualification, when the retired judge is already serving on assignment
    • a judge from another county to hear a matter if there is a reciprocal assignment order issued by the Chief Justice permitting out-of-county judges to serve in the presiding judge’s court

Former presiding judge and committee member, Judge Robert Trentacosta commented, “The oral advice also helps presiding judges deal effectively and ethically with potentially difficult assignments involving local judges.”

The Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions provides oral advice only after referring questions to the California Judges Association ethics hotline or in other limited circumstances. The oral advice the committee issues is summarized and posted on its website for the benefit of the bench and the public. The advice covers issues relating to non-profit membership, fundraising, and a spouse's employment.