Opinion

Voters oust an L.A. Superior Court judge. Should we oust the voters?

Superior Court Judge James B. Pierce loses; is there a message here from voters?

Los Angeles County voters like their judges to be criminal prosecutors. The results of Tuesday’s election reiterated that point, as deputy district attorneys defeated Superior Court referees and commissioners, a deputy city attorney, an ex-lawmaker, a private defense lawyer and apparently, in a rarity, even a sitting Superior Court judge who was running for reelection.

One of the races featured two deputy D.A.s, with the full-time prosecutor defeating her part-time rival. Two races will go to Nov. 4 runoffs: One pits Deputy Dist. Atty. Dayan Mathai against Commissioner Jacqueline Lewis. The other was the great exception to the prosecutorial sweep: Defense lawyer Andrew M. Stein and Deputy City Atty. Tom Griego will proceed to a runoff after having eliminated Deputy D.A. Steven Schreiner.

The apparently defeated judge is James B. Pierce, who lost to challenger — and deputy district attorney — Carol Najera.

I say “apparently” because it’s close. Results posted with 100% of precincts reporting showed Najera with 235,392 votes, or 50.39%, to Pierce’s 231,791, or 49.61%. It’s still a wide enough gap that counting of verified provisional ballots is unlikely to make a difference in the outcome, but elections officials have five weeks to complete the tally.

The defeat of a sitting trial judge is unusual. It last happened in 2006, when bagel shop owner and inactive attorney Lynn Diane Olson beat Judge Dzintra Janavs. Most of the usual points that pundits say make the difference in judicial elections weighed toward Janavs, including ratings by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. — Janavs was “exceptionally well qualified” and Olson “not qualified” — and endorsements by the Los Angeles Times. But conventional wisdom also held that voters would be turned off by a foreign or odd-sounding name like Dzintra Janavs.

The name no doubt played at least a role in Janavs’ defeat eight years ago. But a similar dynamic can hardly explain the defeat of Pierce.

It’s an outcome that could well trouble the 450 or so other Los Angeles Superior Court judges by making them feel vulnerable to challenges the next time out. Court watchers, including The Times editorial board, argue that the defeat of a sitting judge could make other judges think twice about rulings that might properly reflect the law but still could prove unpopular and encourage challengers. We don’t need to politicize court proceedings.

But there wasn’t any ruling by Pierce that was at issue in his race any more than was his name. Najera complained about his courtroom manner — although she said she had never appeared before him. Pierce has been a Los Angeles Superior Court judge for 15 years.

The Times endorsed Pierce over Najera, and the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. rated him “well qualified” and her “not qualified.” But Najera is a deputy district attorney and was on the ballot as “violent crimes prosecutor.” The voters ousted Pierce to go with Najera.

Proof that ignorant voters in judicial elections don’t know what they’re doing? I don’t think so. It’s always tempting to say that voters who choose differently than I would are acting in ignorance, but all it really means is that they got their way and I didn’t get mine. That’s democracy.

It’s unfair to Pierce, and it will probably be a hardship for someone who has made his living as a Superior Court judge for 15 years and appears to have been thrown out for less than solid reasons. But it’s not an argument for ending judicial elections. More news coverage? Yes. More candidate forums? Certainly. More discussion about the relative merits of candidates? Of course. But the system is meant to balance the interests of justice and oversight of the courts by voters, not to protect any particular incumbent. I think the result is unfortunate. I don’t think it’s the end of the world.

And if Najera is truly not qualified to be a judge, and is now on the bench?

First, it’s hard to believe that she’s not qualified in the least, even if Pierce was clearly the better choice. Olson too was rated “not qualified” and Janavs was the better choice, but Olson was elected, assigned to a courtroom, began doing trials and is widely considered to perform satisfactorily in the role.

If she didn’t — and if Najera doesn’t — again, that would be a shame, because an underfunded court that had to lay off many of its referees and commissioners can ill afford to have a courtroom occupied by an unqualified judge. But it’s nevertheless a court of hundreds of judges, and subpar bench officers can be sent to assignments in which the demands aren’t as great and the damage they cause would be minimized. By contrast, imagine the problems that an unqualified judge would cause in one of the smaller Superior Courts, in which there are only two judges.

Find the results of the county’s 15 judicial races here.

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