First-Time Challenger Not Put Off by D.A.'s Long Tenure in Office
Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks may be one of the most firmly entrenched officeholders in Orange County.
He has never faced a serious challenger in his 19 1/2 years as the county’s prosecutor. In the last two elections, 1978 and 1982, he had no challengers. His reputation as a tough prosecutor is widespread, and his prestige among his peers will get another boost in July when he takes over as president of the California District Attorneys Assn.
None of that seems insurmountable to Nick C. Novick, an 18-year deputy prosecutor who left the office last month to run against his longtime boss. He has a plan to unseat Hicks. And it is somewhat unusual.
Novick has little money in his campaign coffer. He has garnered no endorsements. He has put together no organization. He has no campaign manager. Also, he cannot name anyone who will say publicly that he should be elected prosecutor.
Novick’s plan is to get his message out through the media and public appearances, and later with some advertising. He then hopes that voters will take the issues he raises seriously: that Hicks is not as tough a prosecutor as his reputation would show, and that he does not back strongly enough his staff of 160 deputies.
Novick’s campaign theme is that Hicks operates a “good ol’ boys” network. Since Hicks has been in office, he has had essentially the same top four assistants: Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright and Assistant Dist. Attys. Michael Capizzi, Edward Merilees and Ed Freeman. Novick says they have been there too long and have used their authority unevenly.
Actually, most of Novick’s complaints are about judges who, he says, are not tough enough in sentencing. He also accuses them of giving civil cases priority over criminal cases by assigning civil cases more courtroom space. But he blames Hicks and his assistants for complicity because of what he calls their “good ol’ boy” friendship with the judges.
Novick’s principal target is Enright.
“If I’m elected, I’m going to ask the Board of Supervisors to eliminate the position of chief deputy,” Novick said.
The sentiment in the district attorney’s office, even among those friendly to Novick, is that he will win the election only “when the polar caps melt,” as one prosecutor put it.
One of Novick’s problems in the campaign is that even those deputies or former deputies who may have criticisms of Hicks give him generally high marks, and none is as critical as Novick.
Hicks’ greatest strength, according to more than 20 prosecutors and former prosecutors interviewed, is his policy of giving deputies control over cases.
‘Envy of Prosecutors’
“If Cecil Hicks never showed up at work at all, he would still be the best prosecutor in California,” said one highly respected deputy district attorney who did not want his name used. “The way he set this office up, we’re the envy of prosecutors everywhere.”
Another loyal Hicks supporter in the office says that Orange County prosecutors enjoy the shocked look from visiting prosecutors:
“They say, ‘Where is your procedures manual?’ We say, ‘What manual?’ Deputies here decide cases individually.”
Hicks prefers to call it deputy “responsibility” over cases. “We give them the authority to decide, but we expect good judgment to go along with it,” he said.
But numerous prosecutors interviewed say that those expectations do not amount to second-guessing. The result, said one former deputy prosecutor, Paul Meyer, is that the office is “free of paranoia.”
Advice Always Available
Meyer, who is one of the leading defense lawyers in Orange County now, was a prosecutor under Hicks for nine years.
“There was no one from administration coming in to tell us how to run our cases,” Meyer said. “Yet there was always someone from administration available when we needed advice or help.”
Novick does not agree with those assessments. He says there was serious interference during his years in office. For example, he said, he once was told to stop trying to get a particular judge removed from criminal cases.
“I was told we have to get along with the judges,” Novick said. “That’s the good ol’ boys network again.”
Novick finished his career in the south county office. He says he was sent into “exile” for raising too many questions.
Novick, 60, is certainly not running for the money. He was a successful businessman for years before he decided to switch to law, and throughout the years he has kept up a successful real estate business.
News Ideas Professed
Hicks prefers to say nothing about Novick. He denies Novick’s accusations categorically. And he disagrees with Novick that he and his top assistants have been in office too long.
“There is a lot of energy and vitality in the management here,” Hicks said. “We’re coming up with new ideas all the time.”
For example, Hicks said, a young prosecutor walked up to him at a meeting and said: “Do you talk to ‘twos’?” She was a grade-two deputy, which is near the bottom rung (top deputies under the assistants are grade fives).
Hicks told her that of course he talked to twos.
“She came into my office and told me some ideas she had for how to handle cases of domestic violence,” Hicks said. “As a result, we’ve got some exciting plans coming up on those kinds of cases.”
Hicks, 59, was a deputy prosecutor in Orange County for eight years when the Board of Supervisors appointed him district attorney in 1966 to replace Kenneth Williams, who had become a judge.
Integrity Was Priority
Hicks ran for his first election to retain his job in 1970 and has had little to fear from any opponent since.
Hicks says his primary goal, and the one he believes he has accomplished, was to make the office known for its integrity. He points to the political prosecutions of the 1970s, when his office got indictments and eventual convictions of Supervisors Robert Battin for misuse of county staff, Ralph Diedrich for soliciting a bribe and Philip A. Anthony, who pleaded no contest to a campaign laundering misdemeanor. Battin and Diedrich went to prison, and Anthony was soundly defeated when he sought reelection. A political power broker, Louis J. Cella Jr., also went to prison on fraud convictions.
Hicks likes to tell that when he was 11 years old he wrote in a school paper that when he grew up he wanted to be a prosecutor and “put bad guys in jail.”
“I still think that’s a pretty good way to make a living,” he said.
Despite the slim chance Novick is given of defeating Hicks, the district attorney plans to campaign vigorously.
“No matter how much it looks like this is a cinch, I’m not going to take this election for granted,” Hicks said. “When you do that, bad things can happen.”