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Quiet Duel Replaces Free-for-All for Catalina Judgeship

Times Staff Writer

“Summer crush” took on new meaning this year on Santa Catalina Island, where the traditional tourist flood was swelled by the largest political field in the island’s history--the 16 candidates who competed for the position of Catalina Justice Court judge.

Now fall is in the air and Catalina residents say they are happy that the invasion from the mainland, both in tourists and candidates, has slowed.

Islanders saw to that in the June primary, which winnowed the field in the judge’s race from 16 to 2--Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Joe Piro and attorney Peter Mirich.

The two San Pedro lawyers, top vote-getters in the primary, will face off in a Nov. 8 general election runoff for the 1-day-a-week judge’s job. The winner will fill the seat that has been occupied by temporary judges since 1986, when the state Supreme Court removed Robert H. Furey from the bench for “willful misconduct.”

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The Justice Court hears essentially the same matters as a Municipal Court, including small claims, traffic citations and criminal misdemeanors. Catalina judges have typically served four days a week on the mainland as substitute Municipal Court judges and earned about $60,000 a year. Both Mirich and Piro intend to work as judges full time.

The two candidates said in interviews last week that they know islanders are weary of politicking and both are keeping a low profile with just a month to go before the general election.

In the final week before the June 7 primary, locals said, the 16 candidates washed over the town of Avalon in a wave, wearing out their welcome by knocking on too many doors, shaking too many hands, and posting too many placards.

“The primary just wore everybody out,” said Wayne Griffin, director of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce. “It’s hard to get enthusiastic about it all over again.”

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The candidates who gained the most attention on the island before the primary were Piro, who appeared for months at seemingly every social event and church function in Avalon, and Jeffrey Lake, the only local in the race and operator of the Catalina Island Golf Club.

But it was Mirich, a 37-year-old who once served as a lifeguard on the island, who finished first. His 322 votes gave him 33% of the vote and a spot in the runoff against Piro, who received 183 votes, or 19%. Lake trailed with 12%, followed by the other 13 in the field. There are 1,815 registered voters; 966 voted in the primary.

Political observers on the island of 2,200 inhabitants said that Piro, 44, might have simply tried too hard to ingratiate himself to residents.

Campaign Donations

Critics, including Lake, said Piro also was hurt by the revelation in the final week of the campaign that he had accepted a $1,000 contribution from a San Pedro fish company and $2,000 from a San Pedro commercial fishing boat.

They said that Piro might have to hear cases involving Fish and Game violations and should not have taken the money, in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Piro agrees it was a factor in June. But he said the contribution issue was blown out of proportion and the money came from old friends.

He said it would be easy to transfer the case to another court in the unlikely event that a contributor appeared in his court.

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“There was no truth to that at all--that because I took a contribution I could no longer judge them objectively,” Piro said. “That is garbage.”

Piro accused Mirich and his supporters of raising the campaign contributions issue.

In an interview, Mirich said: “I don’t believe that because (Piro) accepted campaign contributions, that it would hurt his ability to judge.” He added that “on an island that size, you don’t need to ask for campaign contributions. I didn’t do it. I have left myself in a position where I will never have to face a situation with someone asking me for favors.”

Mirich said he has used his own money to pay the $9,838 in bills accrued by his campaign through Sept. 30. Piro said he has spent $10,910 campaigning and would not have been able to compete without more than $10,000 in contributions that he has received.

Different Roles

The two also have differed on how they would approach the judge’s position.

Piro said he would do more than decide cases in the 1-room courthouse one day a week. Even serving the other four days of the week on the mainland, Piro said he would still have enough time left over to advise the Avalon City Council and to offer advice for residents in need.

One of his first proposals to the council, Piro said, would be the creation of a 3-to-5-man squad of undercover sheriff’s deputies to slow down drug dealing on the island. He said drugs are a significant enough problem that the city should find a way to pay for the squad. Residents have told him drug trafficking, including shipments from Mexico, is a major problem and that it is difficult for local deputies to tackle because they are recognized by everyone in the small community, he said.

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Piro said he would also organize seminars and counseling on domestic violence and initiate a community service project so that juvenile offenders could be sentenced to work that would help the island.

He would also create a voluntary mediation panel that would attempt to resolve disputes without turning to the court, Piro said. “I don’t want to see people in this community not talking to each other long after a dispute is over.”

Mirich said he would stick to judging.

“A judge is there to judge, not necessarily as a person to become a community activist,” Mirich said. “I’m hoping I could be a resource to the community and give advice where it is asked of me.”

Mirich said he hopes to win by showing his qualifications, which include serving over the past three years as a fill-in judge in Municipal and Superior courts. Mirich said he has handled felony juvenile cases and difficult child-custody disputes during his judging stints.

He will also play up endorsements by union groups such as the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Los Angeles County Marshals Assn.

Mirich said Piro is suggesting new programs “because he doesn’t have the same qualifications and background that I do, and so he has to present something to the voters as a substitute.”

But Piro said that his experience in civil and criminal law is more extensive than Mirich’s. Piro began his law practice in 1977 after receiving a law degree from Pepperdine University. He has two degrees from California State University, Long Beach--a bachelor’s in sociology and a master’s in public address. He ended his civil practice in 1985 when he joined the city attorney’s office. He has also served temporarily as a judge, hearing traffic citations and small claims in Municipal Court.

Mirich graduated from Loyola Law School in 1978, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in public administration from UCLA. He has specialized in criminal defense.

The two have at least one thing in common: both were born and raised in San Pedro.


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