Superior Court Judge Ronald Frazier hears sides in KUSI case.
Superior Court Judge Ronald Frazier hears sides in KUSI case. Photo by Ken Stone

A 2019 profile of San Diego Judge Ronald Frazier tells how fictional Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” inspired the USD Law School grad’s own career.

“Judge Frazier followed his own inherent sense of discerning between right and wrong by pursuing an education which would best integrate a career with his gifts for the betterment of society,” wrote Michaela Jester in a San Diego County Bar Association publication.

On Tuesday, he displayed Finch-like fairness in decisions involving Sandra Maas’ civil suit against the owners of KUSI-TV, alleging violations of the state Equal Pay Act and gender-bias and whistleblower protection laws.

Frazier irked both sides in downtown Superior Court.

The Maas legal team wanted to keep a group of KUSI anchors from testifying about how much they made. Frazier said he’d allow two other men to discuss their anchor roles — Logan Byrnes and Jason Austell — and not just Allen Denton.

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Lawyers for McKinnon Broadcasting Co. wanted to introduce other male anchors as “comparators” to Maas to show she didn’t make less than the average pay of her male colleagues.

KUSI’s legal team wanted sports director Paul Rudy to testify on his wages. Frazier said no. (Rudy can take the stand on other issues, though.)

Frazier repeatedly said, “I’m trying to balance things,” stressing he wanted both sides to have a shot at making their case before a jury.

“KUSI gets to defend themselves,” he said, by offering jurors a different theory on who should be a “comparator” to Maas besides her nine-year co-anchor Denton.

Maas attorney Josh Pang argued that federal case law doesn’t allow defendants to “cherry-pick” which opposite-sex workers should be used for salary comparisons.

“That’s for a jury to decide,” Frazier said.

Frazier said the Maas team can challenge the KUSI comparator theories during cross examination.

Retired KUSI anchor Denton made as much as $250,000, while Maas — sitting next to him in the top-rated late-evening news — made no more than $180,000, her side says.

(Denton previously held a $690,000-a-year NBC anchor job in the Bay Area, the court has been told.)

On a day when jury instructions and questions were mostly nailed down ahead of Wednesday’s jury selection, KUSI attorney Ken Fitzgerald said his side would stress that KUSI “people were paid fairly” according to their value and experience.

“Different people were paid different amounts based on their merit. … That’s our defense for the case,” he said.

Frazier also found a way so Maas’ lawyers wouldn”t reveal salaries of KUSI anchors against their privacy rights and wishes.

Crediting a colleague for the idea, Frazier said jurors would get handout sheets showing the names and wages of KUSI anchors for use during the Maas side’s closing argument.

Thus the Maas lawyers would be able to use the information — by citing Anchor No. 3, for example — without speaking their actual names in public.

Frazier had previously granted a Times of San Diego media request to audiotape opening and closing arguments as well as the verdict (and take photos of litigators but not jurors).

He also OK’d the taping of “mini-openings” planned Wednesday.

Alongside the three-member Maas and KUSI legal teams in the Hall of Justice’s Department 65 were jury consultants — a woman on the Maas side and a man on the KUSI side.

Paying close attention were Mike McKinnon Sr., the station’s founder, and his son Mike Jr., the station president and general manager.

During the morning session, KUSI News Director Steve Cohen took the stand to describe his role and how he handled hiring. Judge Frazier, as promised, closed the court to the press and public to protect KUSI salary data from being revealed.

But before the bailiff locked the courtroom door for 35 minutes, Cohen said former KUSI anchor Anna Laurel — who took over for Maas when she left — made $150,000. (She now works for CBS8.)

Maas lawyer Pang wasn’t happy.

Frazier said: “Mr. Pang, if there’s a salary you don’t want in, raise an objection.” 

At that point, this reporter was ushered out of the court. We also were removed Tuesday afternoon (this time for 22 minutes).

During that after-lunch session, Rudy was called to the stand. Austell also was quizzed in private — but he appeared remotely.

Even with jury selection starting Wednesday — about 10 a.m. — opening statements aren’t expected until Tuesday, Feb. 14. One KUSI lawyer estimated the trial could last till March 7.

In granting both sides a chance of making a “mini-opening” statement Wednesday, Frazier said: “If you go past 5 minutes, I’m going to be grumpy.”

Maas lead attorney Josh Gruenberg said he would practice a 4-minute statement.