Failed pension prosecutor turns Obama judge wannabe

New Obama appellate appointee John Owens has been short on specifics when discussing his judicial philosophy.
  • New Obama appellate appointee John Owens has been short on specifics when discussing his judicial philosophy.

A big-time lawyer from San Diego who has been nominated by Barack Obama for a seat on the oft-controversial U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has revealed his income and net worth as part of the senate’s confirmation process. John Owens, currently a partner in the mega-firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, joined the firm in 2012 after 11 years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office here, where he was head of the criminal division and before that deputy chief of major fraud prosecutions. Owens was first in his 1996 class at Stanford law school but has since encountered his share of failure. In his most famous turn here, Owens was the lead prosecutor in the 2009 case against five ex-members of the city of San Diego’s retirement board who had been indicted for allegedly conspiring to underfund the city’s pension system. The case against the defendants, who included ex-firefighters union chief Ron Saathoff and former system administrator Lawrence Grissom, was thrown out in April 2010 by U.S. district judge Roger Benitez on the grounds that the charges brought under the so-called honest services fraud law they’d been indicted on were too vague. The government decided not to pursue the matter, and city taxpayers later got stuck with a multimillion-dollar defense tab. In the days preceding the dismissal, a February 2004 email written by then–city attorney Casey Gwinn and subsequently reported by the Union-Tribune was used to cast doubt over the prosecution’s case. “The United States Attorney has no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing but has created a criminal investigation in order to avoid being ‘one-upped’ by the SEC,” wrote Gwinn to an outside law firm for the city.

According to the National Law Journal, Owens reported getting a $840,845 partnership draw from Munger, Tolles in 2012. He said his net worth was $2.5 million and he owns a Scripps Ranch residence valued at $826,000. At his senate confirmation hearing in October, Owens avoided discussing too many details of his judicial philosophy, saying, “I was very fortunate to have clerked for Judge J. Clifford Wallace and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and together they taught me a few lessons and the first is you have to be fair and impartial at all times. You’re not rooting for one side. You have to just decide cases on the law. And as an appellate court judge, you have a very limited role. Your job is to review that case — not some other case — based solely on the record and under the appropriate standard of review.” The Los Angeles office of Munger, Tolles has been a popular legal and judicial bullpen for Democratic presidents. Onetime partner Alan Bersin was named U.S. attorney here by president Bill Clinton. In addition to Owens, Obama has nominated Michelle Friedland, another partner, to the Ninth Circuit. Her disclosure revealed she received $765,942 in 2012 compensation. Federal appeals judges make $184,500.

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I'm starting to notice a trend- San Diego legal eagles get demoted up! Case in point: Paige Hazzard, made famous for trampling 1st amendment rights while fighting the sidewalk chalk skurge, was cut loose for embarrassing Jan Goldsmith but landed up a tier in the office of Kamala Harris. What does it take to leave a legal career in tatters around here?

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