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Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 9:14 pm | Fair 56º


Santa Barbara County Bar Association Supports Judicial Independence

Naomi R. Dewey

The recent sentencing of Duanying Chen, who pled guilty to felony animal cruelty, felony assault, witness dissuasion and violating a court order, has placed judicial discretion in the spotlight.

Few, if any, could defend the cruel and egregious torture of an animal. But we should all be defending judicial independence.

Judicial discretion, a key element of judicial independence, is a cornerstone of the American legal system. Both protect our judicial system from improper influence from other branches of government, or from private or partisan interests.

Among other things, in the case of Mr. Chen, judicial discretion allowed Superior Court Judge Brian Hill to select what he felt was an appropriate sentence from a range of possible options based on current law, the evidence, two probation reports (neither of which recommended any jail time), and arguments from attorneys for the People and the defendant.

At Mr. Chen’s sentencing, Judge Hill also noted the “powerful and evident” emotions of members of the public regarding the case.

Mr. Chen has been sentenced to twelve months in county jail and five years of felony probation. In addition to the jail and probation terms, Mr. Chen must also attend domestic violence counseling, participate in a mental health treatment program and pay $24,355.70 in restitution.

In the context of criminal sentencing, this is not a mere slap on the wrist. Judge Hill, using the discretion afforded to him as a Superior Court judge, actually increased the sentence recommended by probation officers who had interviewed countless witnesses, and the defendant, over an extended period of time.

In this case, whatever our personal feelings about the sentence or the gravity of the crimes, justice was done according to both California and federal law.

Judge Hill is a criminal law judge. As a criminal law judge, he is called upon to sentence hundreds of convicted criminals each year. In doing so, he must consider, each time, the nature of the crime and of the criminal, the impact on the victims, the recommendations of the professionals in the Probation Department (who themselves review hundreds of convictions each year in order to make recommendations to the judges), and, of course, the position of the prosecuting attorney.

We cannot and should not demand Judge Hill sentence any particular defendant in any particular way. We can and should demand Judge Hill acts independently, so that, without fear of harm, recall, or retribution, he, and judges like him, mete out justice fairly and rationally to the best of his or her ability.

Part of making a rational sentencing decision is balancing the ways other criminals throughout the state are sentenced for similar crimes.

Judge Hill discharged his obligation to consider all of these things when he sentenced Mr. Chen.

Whether we approve of that decision or not, we should all rise to the defense of the duty of all judges, including Judge Hill, to listen to the evidence, consider all points of view, and in each case make their best, most informed, independent decision on what they believe the facts, circumstances and law demand.

Judge Hill exercised his judicial discretion, as he has done hundreds of times before, and in doing so, he played a small part in something much bigger – the judicial system and the principles that each of us, as citizens of the United States, hold dear.

While those marching for Davey may not like the sentence, they should take pride in the fact that they are part of a democratic society that embraces the separation of powers, judicial discretion and judicial independence.

— Naomi R. Dewey is president of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association.

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