Trial judges are, on the books, elected officials, and even the vast majority of those whose names never appear on a ballot are subject to election challenge every six years. Should voters not call them to account for their performance, as they do with any other politician, on election day? Should they not encourage opponents to challenge incumbent judges? Or are judges different from members of Congress or city councils?
Judges are most definitely different. The last thing we want or need in California is trial judges who sit on the bench with one eye on justice and the other on how any particular ruling is going to play with the public. In other political offices, decisions are expected to be popular, almost by definition, and when a politician takes a courageous action, well, there's a reason we say it's courageous: It may end his or her political career. But as much as we would appreciate the luxury of a bench full of unusually courageous judges, we know that they are human and would be subject to political pressure if we didn't build into the system enough independence that they can preside over cases without seeing each big-moneyed litigant as a potential donor or each losing lawyer as a revenge-seeking challenger.
There are six Los Angeles Superior Court judge seats on the June 5 ballot. The Times' recommendations for the three open seats will be published in coming days. For the three seats in which incumbents have been challenged, The Times endorses:
Office 10: Judge Sanjay T. Kumar
Kumar is one of the court's superstars, well known for his unflappable demeanor in even the busiest courtrooms and, especially, for his ability to parse difficult legal issues and then to explain his reasoning in writing. He is one of the very few trial judges called on to sit in for appellate justices when the need arises; he probably has a future waiting for him in a higher court, should he choose someday to pursue appointment.
He made a name for himself as a California deputy attorney general and was perhaps best known for successfully representing the prosecution in the appeal of the murder convictions of brothers Erik and Lyle Menendez. He was elected a Superior Court commissioner in 2001 and was appointed to a judgeship in 2004.
Why is he being challenged? We would ask Hawthorne Assistant City Atty. Kim Smith, but he rejected our request for an interview. And probably with good reason; he ran for judge two years ago, and our meeting then didn't go any better than the rest of his campaign. The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. found him "not qualified" for judicial office. Given his bombastic personality and lack of judicial demeanor, we agree with the group's rating.
Why Smith is challenging Kumar is of particular concern because of the known tendency of voters, who have little information on which to make their decisions, to reject judges with foreign-sounding names. (For the record, Kumar's father emigrated to the United States from Britain and is of Indian descent.) Because Smith won't speak to us, we can't ask whether that was a factor in his thinking in selecting his opponent. But we don't really need to know: Voters should reject him in any case as a candidate unqualified for the bench who is trying to oust one of the court's best judges.
Office 78: Judge James D. Otto
Otto, the court's supervising judge in Long Beach, is an asset to the court given his background as a civil practitioner who specialized in complex insurance litigation. That experience sets him apart from the former prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers who make up so much of the bench.
He's also an able administrator, and that's a skill that will become ever more valuable as the court undergoes steep budget cuts and must close courtrooms, lay off support staff and reallocate work among the remaining bench officers.
That makes the challenge by retired Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Kenneth R. Hughey more than a little ironic. Hughey is angry at Otto for reassigning another judge — a friend of Hughey's — to a job in which he has no permanent courtroom and must hear low-level cases. It's ironic precisely because the court is about to do the same thing to dozens of judges for budget reasons, and because Otto's tough decisions ease the way for similar unhappy, but unavoidable, moves at the Superior Court.
Even if Otto were not a good judicial administrator, the proper recourse would be for the court's leadership to remove him from his administrative position, not for voters to remove him from the bench and deprive the court of a valuable jurist.
Office 38: Judge Lynn D. Olson
Six years ago, Olson was precisely one of those challengers who damaged and compromised the judicial election process by challenging and defeating a fine incumbent — Dzintra Janavs. Olson was poorly qualified to serve on the bench, having spent the previous decade running a bagel bakery rather than practicing law. The "foreign name" phenomenon almost certainly came into play in that race. It's hard now to give Olson a favorable nod.
But the fact is, Olson is the incumbent, and by all accounts she has been a good judge, learning quickly and performing well enough.
Our endorsement, which comes with some regret and a certain sense of irony, is made easier by the fact that her challenger is Douglas Weitzman, a four-time candidate for the bench. Weitzman two years ago lost a challenge to a different incumbent. Like Smith, this year he declined the editorial board's interview request. But we have seen him in his earlier runs and have found him to lack the judgment and demeanor to serve well as a judge.