Judge in major gun cases reprimanded after 13-year-old girl handcuffed in court

January 21, 2004 photo of Judge Roger T. Benitez in his chambers
Judge Roger T. Benitez in his chambers in 2004. (Nelvin Cepeda / San Diego Union Tribune)

U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez, a high-profile jurist known for striking down California gun control measures, was reprimanded for judicial misconduct on Wednesday for a 2023 incident in which he ordered the 13-year-old daughter of a drug defendant to be handcuffed in open court — despite the girl not being accused of any crimes.

The decision does not remove Benitez from the bench or disqualify him from presiding over high-profile civil cases — including potential future litigation over state gun laws — but does limit his role in criminal matters. Benitez has denied any wrongdoing.

The rare reprimand of a sitting federal judge came after attorneys for the girl's father complained, prompting an investigation and a review by the Judicial Council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of high-ranking judges who oversee federal courts across the American West.

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The council found in its order Wednesday that Benitez's actions were "abusive and harassing," exceeded his authority and undermined "public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."

"First, the shackling of a spectator at a hearing who is not engaged in threatening or disorderly behavior exceeds the authority of a district judge," the panel wrote. "Second, creating a spectacle out of a minor child in the courtroom chills the desire of friends, family members, and members of the public to support loved ones at sentencing."

The panel noted that Benitez maintained he did nothing wrong throughout the investigation, arguing that he was acting with the "best intentions" for the girl after her father lamented that she was heading down the wrong path, including by experimenting with drugs.

Benitez ordered a court bailiff to handcuff the girl in what some witnesses described as a "scared straight" tactic, the panel found. The girl was reduced to tears.

The panel rejected all of Benitez's arguments for why his actions were justified — calling them "not persuasive" — and criticized him for trying to place blame for the incident on others, including the public defenders who complained. It also rejected a claim from Benitez that the investigation was driven by "public pressure."

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The panel found no misconduct in a second matter before them, in which Benitez had addressed another defendant's child from the bench.

Benitez holds "senior status," meaning he had already relinquished some duties as a judge but still hears cases, and had already declined to take new criminal cases, according to the panel's order.

The panel nonetheless ordered that Benitez receive only non-criminal cases for the next three years. During that same time frame, criminal defendants with certain sentencing matters before Benitez may request his recusal, it said.

Several major decisions by Benitez in civil gun cases are currently pending on appeal before the 9th Circuit — including decisions in which he overturned as unconstitutional California's ban on assault weapons and its ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.