Three South Bay Municipal Court judges facing reelection next year have banded together to deliver a message to would-be challengers: Don't mess with us.
The judges, Benjamin Aranda, Sandra Thompson and William Willett, have pledged to support each other's bids for six-year terms on the bench. They say they will hold joint fund-raisers to collect money and endorsements.
The idea behind the cooperative effort, which other judges and attorneys say is a relatively new twist to judicial electioneering, is to scare away potential opponents with a show of solidarity. If that fails, the incumbents still wind up with a war chest to fend off opponents in an election.
Under their agreement, if all three judges are challenged, the money would be divided evenly among them. If only two have opponents, they will split the money. And if only one is challenged, that judge gets the entire pot.
"The point is to be prepared and organized so that if there is a challenge to one of us, we can mount an effective campaign," Thompson, who was appointed to the bench in 1984 by Gov. George Deukmajian, said last week.
The judges staged their first fund-raiser last week in a rented room atop the Commonwealth Bank Building in Torrance. Hundreds of invitations to the catered affair were sent to South Bay attorneys and civic leaders, who were asked to contribute $75 to the judges' cause.
The Thursday night affair was held about eight months before the judges or any challengers are required to file with county officials to run for election. No one has publicly expressed interest in challenging the judges.
'Letting the Public Know'
"It was our thought we should get an early start in letting the public know these judges are interested in remaining in their jobs and figuring out what kind of support there is in the community for them," said Robert A. Welbourn, a Torrance attorney who helped form the Committee to Retain and Re-Elect Judges Aranda, Thompson and Willett.
The committee probably will return money to contributors if none of the judges are challenged, Welbourn said.
The odds are good that the judges will retain their $74,432-a-year jobs without a fight. No South Bay Municipal Court judge has been challenged for reelection since 1972, when attorney Mark Wood defeated incumbent Judge James Hall. The court has six judges who are elected by voters in 11 South Bay communities that make up the judicial district.
But by banding together far in advance of the election and shining the spotlight on themselves, the judges could invite a challenge, some attorneys and political consultants said. At the same time, the judges could unwittingly provide a challenger with an issue to use against them--that they're playing machine politics.
"I'm afraid it calls attention to the fact that you are up for reelection," said Joe Cerrell, a longtime Los Angeles political consultant whose firm, Cerrell Assocs., has managed 54 judicial campaigns since 1978. "And a lot of my concern is that what they are doing can become a campaign issue."
'A Good Approach'
Welbourn, who worked to elect Wood, conceded that the South Bay judges' strategy could develop into a campaign issue. Nevertheless, he said, he and the three judges decided on the strategy because it seemed "like a good approach. We didn't get it from anybody."
Other judges and attorneys said, however, that the strategy has been used elsewhere in the state, particularly in Orange County after a number of incumbent judges in the late 1970s found themselves facing opponents. In 1978, four incumbent superior and municipal court judges were defeated in what some judges still refer to as "the massacre."
Thompson said that the decision to band together was merely an extension of the natural camaraderie among judges. "Even if we didn't have a committee, if one of our colleagues was challenged we would rally to support him," she said.
Aranda and Thompson said the three decided to support each other because they work well together and agree on how the court, which handles about 8,000 civil and 1,500 felony criminal cases annually, should operate.
Just as important, they said, is that they want to be ready if any one of them should face a challenger and, therefore, an expensive reelection campaign. A campaign, which probably would include sending mailers to registered voters throughout the sprawling judicial district, could cost $100,000 or more, Aranda said.
By holding joint fund-raisers, Aranda said, the judges are not forced to beat the pavement on their own and seek contributions from supporters, many of whom would be local attorneys that appear before them in court.
"This kind of depersonalizes it and makes it a step removed from the hat-in-hand type of thing that is so distasteful to judges," Aranda said. "The concept of getting away from asking for money personally has an awful lot of appeal to it. It is much more professional and much less demeaning."
Willett and Aranda each has won election once before, in both cases running unopposed. Both had been appointed to the bench by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to fill unexpired terms, Willett in 1980 and Aranda a year earlier. Willett was the only judge who would not discuss the campaign, declining to return a reporter's calls last week.
Orange County Election
One judge who has benefited in the past from cooperative campaigning is Brian R. Carter, a Municipal Court judge in Orange County. Carter and four of his fellow judges at the Harbor Division courthouse in Newport Beach joined forces in 1986 to raise money. When only Carter was challenged, he received $20,000--all the money they raised except for $5,000, which went for a brochure put out on behalf of all the judges.
Carter said he eventually raised another $40,000 to $45,000 on his own to defeat his opponent, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert E. Thomas.
Thomas recalled that he spent $6,700 on his campaign, an amount that he complains might have been greater if the judges had not banded together.
"When I went to talk to people I had been friends with for a long time they would say, 'Gee, Bob, I would like to support you but I have already contributed to the group,' " Thomas said.
Thomas also said that the judges, by running as a group, may have dissuaded some groups from endorsing him. For example, he said, after the election a leader of a sheriff's officers association told him that it would not have been "politically expedient" for the group to support him.
Welbourn, as well as other attorneys and judges, said incumbent judges always have an advantage in raising money simply because they already hold the office and have a built-in following.
Frank Barbaro, a Santa Ana attorney who has been active in judicial fund raising, argues that it is best if judges avoid raising money themselves. He is is treasurer of the Committee to Preserve a Responsible Judiciary, a political action group of about 30 attorneys, which has raised about $400,000 since 1979 for Orange County Superior Court races.
"I think it is much better to have the judges removed from the fund-raising process," Barbaro said. "I don't believe any judge of conscience would be affected by who contributed or failed to contribute, but I do believe the appearance is there and it could be misinterpreted."
Seymour I. Cohen, president of the South Bay Bar Assn., said he does not see any "malevolence" in the strategy adopted by the local judges. He said he feels no "undue pressure" to contribute to the three.
Nevertheless, he said, he views the strategy as fallout of the "politicization of the judiciary" that occurred last year when three justices on the California Supreme Court, criticized for their voting records on the death penalty, were repudiated by the electorate.
Orange County Municipal Court Judge Calvin Schmidt, one of the five Harbor Division judges who banded together last year, defends the local judges' approach because of the high costs of campaigning.
Schmidt said it is often the judges themselves who know best how their peers perform on the bench and whether they should be retained. If judges endorse each other, he said, voters are given some direction in the judicial elections, which typically receive scant media attention unless there is a controversy of some sort.
"The average person never comes into contact with the judicial process," Schmidt said. "I think it is extremely difficult for a person to know the attributes or qualifications" of a judge.
Said Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge John D. Harris, who serves on the elections committee of the California Judges Assn. and favors the South Bay judges' strategy: "There is always an issue, but I think the benefits of early organization and raising money far exceed any criticisms."