THE LOS ANGELES SUPERIOR COURT is the nation's largest trial court, and its 429 judges wield enormous power. They are the only people in the county who can dissolve a marriage or award custody of a child and, but for a few exceptions in federal court, the only people who can impose the death penalty. Superior Court judges preside over felony and misdemeanor trials and hearings, juvenile dependency and delinquency matters, family law cases and civil lawsuits.
Every other year about a third of these judges come up for election or reelection to a new six-year term, or to complete the term of a judge who has died or retired. They're never all on the ballot, however, because an incumbent judge is automatically deemed elected if no challenger files and qualifies to run for the seat. Only vacant judgeships that the governor hasn't filled within a statutory time frame, and judges who have drawn challengers, will have their races on the ballot. The vast majority of judges are appointed by the governor and never face the voters.
For their part, voters often have a tough time figuring out who judicial candidates are and how to tell them apart. A few admit that they choose based on the candidate's name, or perhaps on his or her ballot designation, or maybe on the statement that some candidates choose to have placed in the ballot pamphlet (at substantial cost).
Needless to say, none of these methods is ideal. Choosing by name is simplistic. The ballot designations, or three-word descriptions that follow the names, are submitted by the candidates, who choose whatever they think will make voters select them. That's how you can have two candidates who have the same job, but one is listed as "criminal prosecutor" and the other as "deputy district attorney."
Designations also can be challenged by an opponent or the registrar if they are inaccurate, misleading or violate a host of other laws. For example, a candidate can use "attorney/law professor" but can't use "world's greatest lawyer." Nor can candidates use "incumbent judge" if what they really mean is that they judge beauty contests or are good judges of character.
The ballot pamphlet also contains 200-word candidate statements for those judicial candidates who decide to pay for them. The law requires that candidates pay for the estimated cost of printing and mailing, which varies from year to year depending on the size of the ballot and the roll of eligible voters. This year's estimate for a single statement is $45,000 — twice that for candidates who want them in English and Spanish.
To review: More than 400 judges on the court (the court has 429 authorized positions, but there are always vacancies). About a third of the judges are up for election or reelection this year. And of those, only those facing qualified challengers are actually on the ballot. That leaves nine positions on which citizens will be asked to vote.
One is a challenge to a sitting judge; one is an open seat for which only one candidate filed; and the other seven are contested races between two or more candidates. There will be a November runoff in each race in which no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on June 6. (Each seat is designated by a number for identification purposes; the numbers have no other meaning and expire after the election.)
The Times makes the following endorsements for Superior Court judge:
Office No. 8: Alan H. Friedenthal already does much of a judge's work as a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner. He has a steady command of the law and has shown himself to be an impartial and dedicated administrator of justice.
Also running are California Deputy Atty. Gen. Bob Henry and Deputy City Attorney Deborah Sanchez, both of whom have many years of experience as attorneys working for the state, in Henry's case, and the city of Los Angeles, in Sanchez's, but Friedenthal has the edge in bench experience, demeanor and temperament.
Office No. 18: Daviann Mitchell is the best choice in a crowded field of six. An imposing former police officer who now prosecutes gang crimes as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney, she earns top marks for fairness and integrity from defense lawyers who have squared off against her and judges who have presided over her cases.
Office No. 28: Judith L. Meyer was an impressive candidate when she ran for judge in 2004, but her opponent had the edge in experience. Meyer, a deputy district attorney with two additional years of prosecutorial and courtroom time, is the outstanding candidate in this three-person field.
She is running against Deputy Atty. Gen. S. Paul Bruguera, who is also a strong candidate, and real estate attorney and broker Douglas W. Weitzman.
Office No. 95: Susan L. Lopez-Giss is the better of two highly qualified candidates, both of whom are lawyers in the Los Angeles city attorney's office. Lopez-Giss was a pioneer in the prosecution of domestic violence, having drafted the first guidelines for prosecution in California. She later served as a civil practitioner, becoming the city's attorney's top lawyer representing the Department of Water and Power and supervising lawsuits for and against the agency.
She is running against experienced prosecutor Richard Kraft, and has the edge in leadership and breadth of experience.
Office No. 102: Hayden Zacky is a young but well-regarded prosecutor with broad experience first in civil law and then, for the last 12 years, as a deputy district attorney. His demeanor and presence make him ready to serve as a judge.
He is pitted against C. Edward Mack, an experienced public defender, and George C. Montgomery, a trial lawyer with decades of experience in several jurisdictions.
Office No. 104: Bobbi Tillmon's name will appear on the ballot, but she will win easily because no one filed to run against her. That rare good fortune may have been the luck of the draw, or it may have been because of the respect she has earned as a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner.
Office No. 120: Dzintra Janavs is a charming, commanding, experienced and often brusque and impatient judge who earned the distinction of being the only one to draw a challenge among the more than 140 Los Angeles Superior Court judges up for election this year. The challenge comes from Lynn Diane Olson, an attorney who has been on "inactive" status for most of her career while she ran Manhattan Bread and Bagel, in Manhattan Beach, with her husband. Olson could articulate no good reason to challenge Janavs, except to say that a judge should have to defend her seat. Olson may make the better bagel. Janavs would remain by far the better judge.
Office No. 122: Daniel J. Lowenthal is the son of state Sen. Alan Lowenthal and Long Beach Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal (a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board), and the husband of Dr. Suja Lowenthal, president of the Long Beach Unified School District board. His political pedigree and fund-raising ability may make him a shoo-in, but they are beside the point. Lowenthal has a breadth of experience in both civil and criminal matters in the Los Angeles city attorney's office.
His opponent, attorney Robert Davenport, worked as an attorney in New York but made his mark here as an author of books on the genealogy of his family and the families of the rich and famous.