For voters in Los Angeles County, the 11 races for Superior Court judge are perhaps the most mystifying part of the June 5 election. It's hard to find information about the candidates, and harder still to choose among them.
Voters should be aware of a few basic facts about judicial elections. First, although the people's role in selecting judges is important, it is limited: the L.A. Superior Court has more than 480 judicial seats, and the judges serve six-year terms. But most vacancies are filled by the governor rather than by voters. And incumbent judges who are not challenged for reelection are automatically reelected, so you'll never see their names on the ballot.
This year, only one sitting judge has been challenged. Twenty-six candidates are competing for 10 vacant or soon-to-be-vacated seats.
In smaller courts, voters have considerably more clout. In San Francisco, for example, four deputy public defenders are challenging sitting judges, all of them Republican appointees, for being too conservative. On a court of just 52 judges, the challenges could succeed in making a marked difference.
In L.A., by contrast, a campaign to alter the outlook or politics of the court is far less viable. Voters here cannot, in one fell swoop, make the court more liberal or conservative. Nor should they. They should select candidates who best demonstrate integrity, intelligence and judicial temperament — by which we mean even-handedness, open-mindedness and an ability to hear out the parties before them without ever losing their command of the courtroom.
Superior Court judges preside over criminal matters, including not just trials and sentencing, but also the many preliminary stages as well, including arraignments, bail hearings and the like. They likewise preside over civil matters, including injury and commercial lawsuits, landlord-tenant disputes, and divorce, child custody, adoption and other family law matters.
Why are so many candidates deputy district attorneys? In part because they handle a lot of trials and often see the bench as a natural next step; and in part because Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed far fewer prosecutors to trial courts than have previous governors. Deputy D.A.s who once might have sought an appointment from the governor are instead turning to the voters.
The Times interviews each contestant and researches their backgrounds, accomplishments and abilities and then we make our endorsements. In some races all candidates are middling at best, and in others more than one candidate would be a credit to the judicial bench, but in each case we endorse the person we consider the best of the particular bunch.
OFFICE NO. 4
Alfred A. Coletta. Not every prosecutor would necessarily make a good judge, but Coletta is one who would probably be excellent. He has tried a wide variety of criminal cases and has won plaudits from defense lawyers and judges for fairness. Superior Court Commissioner A. Veronica Sauceda had an impressive career as a public interest lawyer and also would make a good judge but cannot match Coletta for trial experience. Also running is Deputy City Atty. Matthew Schonbrun.
OFFICE NO. 16
Sydne Jane Michel. Redondo Beach is one of the few cities in L.A. County with its own criminal prosecutors, who handle misdemeanors instead of handing them off to the district attorney. Michel is a seasoned Redondo Beach prosecutor who has the presence to command a courtroom while still respecting the lawyers appearing before her. She is a better choice than L.A. Deputy City Atty. Patricia "Patti" Hunter or L.A. Deputy Dist. Atty. Hubert S. Yun.
OFFICE NO. 20
Wendy Segall. This especially bitter race pits two prosecutors against each other — and seemingly has roiled various factions within the district attorney's office. Both Segall and Mary Ann Escalante are accomplished and well-regarded criminal prosecutors, and either would do well enough on the bench, but voters have to choose. The Times considered critiques from lawyers who have worked with them and against them and gives the edge to Segall.
OFFICE NO. 60
Holly L. Hancock. A deputy public defender, Hancock will appear on the ballot described as "Attorney-at-Law," largely because judicial campaign lore dictates that calling oneself a public defender will turn away would-be voters. If that lore is correct it's a shame, because, like prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers also generally gain a great deal of trial experience. That alone does not necessarily make them good judicial candidates, but in Hancock's case it does. She is a better choice than Deputy Dist. Attys. Tony J. Cho and Ben Colella.
OFFICE NO. 63
Malcolm H. Mackey. Mackey is the one incumbent judge in this year's L.A. Superior Court races who has been challenged for reelection. The Times finds unpersuasive the assertions of challenger Anthony Lewis that Mackey is unfair to plaintiffs in employment actions — as supposedly demonstrated by two decisions more than 20 years ago that overturned jury awards. Mackey has made thousands of rulings in his long career and has a solid record and an outstanding reputation as a fair and accomplished jurist.
It's noteworthy that Mackey has served as a judge for nearly 40 years, a fact that necessarily prompts the question: How old is he? He's 88. No matter how esteemed he may be, The Times would not hesitate to urge his retirement or ouster if it were evident that age had affected his competence or productivity. But that appears not to be the case. Quite the opposite, in fact; Mackey has a reputation as a sharp-minded judge.
OFFICE NO. 67
Maria L. Armendariz. Armendariz is a judge of the State Bar Court, which hears professional misconduct cases against lawyers and metes out discipline as necessary. Her professional background is varied and impressive. It includes experience as an ombudsman for women's prisons and negotiator in prison hunger strikes, as an attorney for the state Assembly Public Safety Committee and as a staff leader to members of the Legislature. Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis P. Vincent is also impressive. Attorney Onica Valle Cole is making her second run for a judgeship.
OFFICE NO. 71
David A. Berger. This is the second time Deputy Dist. Atty. Berger has run for judge, and the second time he wins The Times' endorsement for his impressive record as a trial lawyer. Outside the courtroom, he has a reputation for sharp-witted candor and a sometimes supercilious attitude, which he displayed as a candidate for Los Angeles city attorney and later on a website that critiqued various candidates and commented on news events. None of that gives us pause. In the courtroom, he has demonstrated himself to be a professional if somewhat tough criminal prosecutor. Our preference would be to elect both him and his rival, Superior Court Commissoner Danielle R.A. Gibbons, to the bench. But they are running against each other, we can pick only one, and we recommend Berger.
OFFICE NO. 113
Michael P. Ribons. Each of the three candidates in this race has previously run, unsuccessfully, for Superior Court judge and is trying again. Experience suggests that voters generally opt for criminal prosecutors — like rivals Steven Schreiner and Javier Perez — over civil litigators like Ribons, but in this case Ribons is the best choice. In addition to practicing law, he has served as a judge pro tem — a volunteer judge — and as an arbitrator and mediator. He has a good reputation among attorneys who have appeared before or against him. Schreiner and Perez are experienced deputy district attorneys, but Ribons is the best choice in this race.
OFFICE NO. 118
David D. Diamond. Diamond chairs the Burbank Police Commission and as an attorney has served as a family lawyer, a civil litigator and a criminal defense lawyer. He faces Troy Davis, an impressive prosecutor. Each has the backing of numerous judges of the Superior Court, and each has a reputation as good courtroom lawyer. The Times chooses Diamond for the diversity of his experience.
OFFICE NO. 126
Rene Caldwell Gilbertson. A senior attorney on the Los Angeles County Counsel's Office, Gilbertson has served stints providing legal advice to the sheriff and to the Board of Supervisors' executive office. But she has spent most of her career in dependency court, representing abused or neglected children. The court is badly in need of judges in dependency cases, and Gilbertson would prove an asset. Also running are Deputy Dist. Atty. Ken Fuller, and private practitioner Shlomo Freiman, who volunteers as a judge in traffic cases. Fuller, especially, shows promise, but of the three, Gilbertson is the best choice.
OFFICE NO. 146
Emily T. Spear. In this contest between Deputy Dist. Atty. Spear and Superior Court Commissioner Armando Duron, Spear is the better choice, according to attorneys who have worked against her and alongside her, and those who have appeared before Duron.