LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – The First District Appellate Court has ruled that an Iraq War vet who had a restraining order placed against him for making threats against a judge must receive a new hearing in the effort to extend the protection order.
The unpublished appellate court decision in the case of Administrative Office of the Courts v. Norman Valdez was released last Friday.
The Administrative Office of the Courts had sought the restraining order on behalf of Vincent Lechowick, a retired Mendocino County Superior Court judge who for several years has served as a commissioner in Lake County.
In the new decision, the appellate justices ruled that visiting Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil erred in renewing the workplace violence restraining order against Valdez because Tansil improperly conducted a July 30, 2012, hearing by telephone over Valdez's objection.
“We find no statutory authorization for a trial judge to appear telephonically at a hearing over the objection of one of the parties,” according to the decision entered by Acting Presiding Justice Sandra Margulies and associates justices Robert Dondero and Kathleen Banke.
In response to a request for comment on whether it would continue to pursue the restraining order, an Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman told Lake County News that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
“I think they're going to try to continue this,” Valdez told Lake County News.
The restraining order first placed against Valdez in 2009 prevents him from contacting Lechowick or coming within 50 yards of him or the courthouse unless Valdez and his wife, Lisa, have a scheduled hearing or official business, according to court documents.
Valdez, 50, who has represented himself throughout the proceedings, said he wants to have the restraining order dropped so he can move on with his life.
He does not deny making the threats to kill Lechowick in 2008, but said they were made at a time when he had a breakdown and was suffering from as-yet untreated post traumatic stress disorder that resulted from a nearly year-long military tour in Iraq.
Valdez was a member of the California National Guard's 579th Engineer Battalion, based in Petaluma.
In the spring of 2004, Valdez was deployed to Iraq. He was assigned to patrol the largest military base in the country, located at Balad, in the Sunni triangle.
In November 2004, while patrolling the base, an improved explosive device blast – the second he had encountered during his tour – injured him. He retains shrapnel in his left arm from the blast.
A total of three men from the battalion ultimately would be killed while on tour in Iraq, Valdez said.
Lechowick was the assigned judge in Valdez's divorce from his previous wife and the accompanying child support case. Valdez said Lechowick was biased against him and made inappropriate comments to his current wife in a separate legal case in which she was involved.
Altogether, Valdez made 12 court appearances before Lechowick between 2005 and 2007, and he unsuccessfully appealed some of Lechowick's decisions, according to the case background in the latest decision.
It was an appellate ruling in March 2008 that upheld Lechowick's denial of Valdez's motion to reduce his child support obligations that resulted in Valdez making the death threats.
Lisa Valdez said her husband “lost it” after that decision came out, and so she called a veterans suicide hotline to seek help for him in the midst of trying to get him into a Veterans Affairs facility for treatment.
She believed the hotline was supposed to be confidential. “It wasn't,” she said.
During the course of the call, Norman Valdez admitted to wanting to kill Lechowick. Lisa Valdez, who is a nurse, had urged her husband to be honest in his responses, and said he made the threats in the course of truthfully answering questions. She said he didn't want to hurt anyone, and he was asking for help.
Lisa Valdez said the hotline is mandated to report when someone threatens to hurt themselves of someone else, so the matter was turned over to the Lake County Sheriff's Office.
Norman Valdez was arrested and kept in jail for 33 days before he was released and his wife was able to get him into the San Francisco VA Hospital, which diagnosed him as having “significant” PTSD, Lisa Valdez said.
A year and a half later, he took a plea agreement for a misdemeanor in the threat case and fulfilled his probation.
In 2009 the Administrative Office of the Courts sought a permanent injunction keeping Valdez away from Lechowick, with Tansil granting a three-year injunction that expired in October 2012. The order allowed Valdez to visit his attorney's office and his wife's attorney's office, as well as the County Veterans Service office, all of which are located near the Lakeport courthouse.
After the restraining order was granted, Valdez said he inadvertently came in contact with Lechowick with no issues.
Dean Gotham, president of the local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 951, said he was with Valdez and a group of veterans at Angelina's Bakery in downtown Lakeport having coffee one day in 2009 or 2010 when Lechowick came in and sat next to Valdez.
“He came in and sat right next to him, literally,” Gotham said, adding that Valdez was concerned about what he should do. Gotham, himself a PTSD sufferer, said he felt for Valdez in his situation.
In July 2012, the Administrative Office of the Courts sought to have the restraining order extended for another three years.
One of the issues brought up with that extension request was that Lisa Valdez had gone to Mendocino County to look at Lechowick's own divorce case file. She said she did so as part of filing a complaint about this behavior toward her with the Commission on Judicial Performance.
Lisa Valdez said the Lake County Superior Court notified her that the presiding judge and assistant presiding judge disciplined Lechowick privately for his behavior in her case. She said the Commission on Judicial Performance refused to take additional action.
On July 30, 2012, Norman Valdez showed up to the court, intending to present witnesses and evidence to back up his assertion that, thanks to counseling for his PTSD, he had moved forward with his life and that his improved situation warranted having the order dropped.
By that point, Lechowick was no longer hearing Valdez’s child support case, and Valdez had become involved in volunteer work and joined the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.
“I was shocked when I went in for the renewal and I was the only one in there besides the bailiff and court reporter,” Valdez said.
He was told that the Administrative Office of the Courts' attorney and the court clerk discussed the matter and decided not to inform him beforehand that the judge was appearing via phone and not in person.
Tansil granted the Administrative Office of the Courts' request to extend the restraining order for three years. Valdez subsequently appealed the decision.
With the appellate court's reversal of Tansil's extension of the restraining order, the matter is next to be sent back to the Lake County Superior Court for a new hearing on the request and the entry of a new order granting or denying the request.
That process of transmitting the case back to the local court is expected to take several weeks, Valdez said.
Lake County Superior Court Executive Officer Krista LeVier told Lake County News that the Administrative Office of the Courts is technically the party pursuing the restraining order, so the ultimate decision of whether to pursue the extension of the restraining order is up to that agency.
“However, I can tell you that the court and the AOC take the safety of our public officers and employees very seriously,” she said.
Email Elizabeth Larson at [email protected] . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.