Skip to main content

‘Look at me’: Federal judge sparks outrage and investigation after ordering defendant’s 13-year-old girl cuffed in court to make a point

Roger Benitez

Judge Roger Benitez, pictured in a CNN segment after overturning California assault weapons ban.

A judicial conduct investigation has launched in the Ninth Circuit after widespread outrage over a veteran jurist’s decision to have a 13-year-old girl handcuffed in his courtroom.

Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, a George W. Bush appointee who previously made waves for comparing an AR-15 to a Swiss Army Knife when overturning California’s assault weapon ban, on Feb. 13 ordered the daughter of defendant Mario Puente handcuffed, said Puente’s sentencing memorandum. The father, who admitted at the revocation hearing to violating his supervised release, has a history of drug issues and completed treatment programs twice, the documents added.

According to the defendant’s lawyer Mayra Lopez, a federal public defender, Puente made an emotional allocution at a hearing before Judge Benitez. But after the father expressed fear that his daughter might one day stray down the wrong path, Benitez apparently tried to scare the 13-year-old girl by ordering her cuffed. Court documents recounted the scene this way:

During this hearing, Mr. Puente’s 13-year-old daughter was seated in the gallery. As part of Mr. Puente’s allocution, he expressed a desire to leave San Diego because “everywhere and anywhere I turn, I know somebody.” He indicated that “[t]he only way I can – I feel like I can do anything is leaving, leaving what I know…” He also expressed concern that his daughter was hanging out with the wrong people, who might “lead her into the same path I went down.” He expressed his belief that “the only thing [he] could do for her is try to get her out, try to get her out.”

Several minutes later, Judge Benitez asked a U.S. Marshal, “You got cuffs?” The Marshal confirmed he did. Judge Benitez then ordered the 13-year-old girl to leave the spectator area, approach the front of the courtroom, and stand next to her father’s lawyer. He told the Marshal to “[p]ut cuffs on her.” The Marshal did so, cuffing the girl’s hands behind her back. As he did so, she was crying. Judge Benitez then instructed the Marshal to “put[ ] her over there in the jury box for me for just a minute.” The Marshal complied, placing the girl in the jury box in handcuffs. She continued to cry.

After a long pause, Judge Benitez released the girl. But he did not allow her to immediately return to her seat. Instead he told her, “don’t go away. Look at me.” He asked her how she liked “sitting up there” and “the way those cuffs felt on you.” Still in tears, she responded that she “didn’t like it.” He told her she was “an awfully cute young lady” but that if she didn’t stay away from drugs, she would “wind up in cuffs” and be “right back there where I put you a minute ago.”

Puente’s attorney said the judge humiliated and psychologically damaged the girl.

Chief Circuit Judge Mary H. Murguia, the Chair of the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit (which investigates judges), announced a misconduct complaint on Tuesday.

“After conducting an inquiry into the allegations, which included review of the relevant court transcripts, on February 22, 2023, I identified a misconduct complaint against Judge Benitez pursuant to the Judicial Disability Act, 28 U.S.C. § 351(b) and JC&D Rule 5,” Murguia wrote. “Since that time, information related to these allegations has been published in the media. Pursuant to JC&D Rule 23(b)(1), this order and the fact that I identified a complaint against Judge Benitez are publicly disclosed in order to ‘maintain public confidence in the Judiciary’s ability to redress misconduct or disability.'”

In 2004, when the judge was a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee investigated Benitez and found that a “substantial majority” of committee members deemed the nominee “Not Qualified.”

“My investigation took place during the summer of 2003,” Richard M. Macias wrote at the time on the ABA’s behalf. “In addition to carefully reviewing pertinent materials, such as the nominee’s responses to the questionnaire, his legal writings and other documents that he sent me to review, my investigation of the professional qualifications of Judge Benitez included approximately 67 confidential interviews with members of his legal community, including 23 judges and 44 lawyers. During each conversation, I asked how the person knew the nominee and what the person knew about the nominee’s professional competence, judicial temperament, and integrity that would bear on his competence to be a United States District Judge.”

Macias indicated that he was startled by the number of “negative” reviews, so he made a concerted effort to speak with Benitez at length.

“Because I received more negative comments concerning this nominee than I had ever received about any other person I have investigated, I met with Judge Benitez twice and spent considerably longer conferring with him than what is normally required,” he wrote. “A substantial number of the judges and lawyers I interviewed raised significant concerns about Judge Benitez’ judicial temperament and his courtroom demeanor.”

Macias said many of those interviewed were prosecutors and defense lawyers who appeared before Benitez when he was a state judge and a federal magistrate judge.

“Interviewees repeatedly told me that Judge Benitez displays inappropriate judicial temperament with lawyers, litigants, and judicial colleagues; that all too frequently, while on the bench, Judge Benitez is arrogant, pompous, condescending, impatient, short-tempered, rude, insulting, bullying, unnecessarily mean, and altogether lacking in people skills,” he added.

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1950, Benitez previously served as a judge for the Superior Court of California and also worked for nearly 20 years in private practice.

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.