The Los Angeles Superior Court is the nation's largest trial court of general jurisdiction, with at any one time about 450 judges hearing complex commercial lawsuits, landlord-tenant disputes, misdemeanor and felony prosecutions, divorce and child custody disputes, conservatorships and guardianships, adoption and foster care matters, traffic cases and plenty more besides.
FOR THE RECORD:
Superior Court: An April 22 endorsement of judicial candidates referred to the 10 years of State Bar membership required for a California trial judge and stated that Matthew Schonbrun "won't notch his decade until the day after the election." Schonbrun reaches the 10-year mark the day before the election. —
Most judges are appointed by the governor to fill vacancies left by those who retired or otherwise left office before the end of one of their six-year terms. Incumbents then come before voters to be elected for another six years, at least in theory. If no candidate challenges a sitting judge who is up for reelection, the incumbent wins automatically and his or her name does not even go on the ballot. That is why voters in Los Angeles County do not see 150 judicial offices on their ballots every two years, and thank goodness.
But some judges do get challenged, as was the case with three this year. The Times endorsed in those races Friday, and our selections are restated below.
And some seats remain open and go to the voters when the governor has declined or failed to appoint someone to fill a vacancy by the statutory deadline. In Los Angeles, there are three such seats this year, featuring 10 candidates.
The Times makes its recommendations after meeting with and interviewing the candidates, watching them in action in court when possible, and speaking with those who work with them to learn something about their levels of expertise, integrity, fairness, industriousness and civility. We look for attorneys who know their way around a courtroom and a case file, and those who can command respect in the midst of an emotion-laden proceeding without becoming imperious or dictatorial.
Office 3: Sean Coen
Coen brings the right combination of courtroom expertise, integrity and calm demeanor. He is a Los Angeles deputy district attorney, as are many candidates, and it's no surprise. Prosecuting criminal cases provides rigorous training in the law and courtroom procedure, but more to the point, it puts lawyers in a position to observe and learn from the best and worst judges, and the best and worst attorneys, on a daily basis. It also puts those judges and attorneys in a position to observe the candidate and to assess whether he or she would do a good job on the bench — and judges and lawyers who have worked with or against Coen give him high marks.
Craig Gold is also a deputy district attorney, currently working in the asset forfeiture division of the office. That gives him some experience in civil as well as criminal matters, and that breadth would make him an asset to the court. Still, he does not match Coen in potential.
To get some diversity of background and experience, it would be nice to be able to elect some non-prosecutors to the bench, but only if they have the skills to manage a courtroom. Joe Escalante, radio host, punk rock drummer and bass player, and music impresario as well as attorney, is no doubt the most interesting of this year's judicial candidates, but he offers little evidence to suggest that he's qualified to serve as a judge. Laurence Kaldor provides free legal representation to people who otherwise could not afford counsel, and it's admirable work. But Kaldor lacks sufficient courtroom experience and expertise.
Office 65: Andrea Thompson
In a race among three prosecutors, Thompson is the best choice for judge because she combines her first-rate courtroom skills and years of experience with the impressive air of calm that has made her so effective in an unusual position: She leads the prosecutorial team at Stuart House, where children who have allegedly been sexually abused are cared for — and gently questioned — in the preparation of child-predator and sex-abuse cases. It's an assignment laden with ways for lawyers to harm innocent people, yet Thompson is widely lauded for her treatment of victims and witnesses and for her tenaciousness in ferreting out the truth.
Shannon Knight is also a deputy district attorney, and a good one. She is ready to be a judge right now, and we would not hesitate to endorse her if her opponent was also not of such high caliber. Voters who opt for Thompson, as we do, would be fortunate to also have Knight on the bench, either through a gubernatorial appointment or in a vote two years from now, if Knight does not prevail in this race. Deputy City Atty. Matt Schonbrun also has potential, but he may be rushing things just a bit. Candidates must have 10 years of experience as licensed California attorneys before taking the bench, and Schonbrun won't notch his decade until the day after the election.
Office 114: Eric Harmon
In a contest between two civil practitioners and yet another deputy district attorney, voters might be inclined to go with one of the civil lawyers. And the court is in desperate need of experienced generalists. Yet it's Harmon, the criminal prosecutor, who is the best candidate in this race because he is the one with the right demeanor, skills and experience for the job.
Berj Parseghian brings a varied background as an environmental lawyer who has represented both plaintiffs and defendants, but although he is an experienced lawyer, and by most accounts a good one, he would be little more than a novice in a courtroom. He has logged some hours as a volunteer judge presiding over traffic cases, and it's a start, but he's not ready. Ben Brees has a lot of the life experience that it's good to see in judges, having been a truck driver and a bus driver, having run small businesses and having held down a nuts-and-bolts law practice. But there is nothing in his background or presentation that indicates he is fit to run a courtroom.
Here is a summary of The Times' judicial recommendations:
Office 3: Sean Coen
Office 10: Sanjay Kumar
Office 38: Lynn D. Olson
Office 65: Andrea Thompson
Office 78: James Otto
Office 114: Eric HarmonCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times