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LOCAL ELECTIONS : ‘People Are Talking’ : Race for Municipal Court Raises Eyebrows, Money

Times Staff Writer

It defies predictions, this runoff race for an open seat on the San Diego Municipal Court.

For starters, the National Organization for Women has raised eyebrows by backing prosecutor Frank Brown for the job--even though his opponent is a woman, attorney Donna Woodley.

A bevy of sitting judges on both the Municipal and Superior Court benches, who typically steer clear of political bouts or keep their views private, are taking sides in the contest, donating money and talking freely about the candidates.

Moreover, Brown and Woodley are spending big bucks of their own on the race, between them lending their campaigns more than $95,000--$18,000 more than the judgeship’s annual salary of $77,409.

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‘Talking About This One’

All in all, the Municipal Court campaign, usually a rather ho-hum affair, has been downright intriguing.

“People are talking about this one,” observed San Diego County Bar Assn. President Ned Huntington, “no doubt about it.”

Brown and Woodley are vying for a seat vacated by Judge Joseph K. Davis, who is retiring. Davis, appointed by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 1980, has been on medical leave since last year, when a misdemeanor battery charge against him was dropped after a jury deadlocked. The two candidates, both native San Diegans, were the top vote-getters among eight contenders in the June 7 primary.

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Brown, an Ocean Beach resident, has won the backing of a wide segment of the legal community and was rated “well qualified” to be a Municipal Court judge by the county bar association.

A former San Diego police officer, Brown, 44, has been a deputy district attorney 16 years. He has touted his law enforcement experience and handling of more than 100 felony trials in arguing that he would be a tough judge sensitive to crime victims.

Woodley, 33, has been a lawyer 10 years, mostly handling misdemeanor cases. Her primary experience has been with large volumes of traffic arraignments in Municipal Court. She was rated “not recommended” by the bar association, but she maintains that the group’s evaluation process was flawed and unfair.

Housing Violations

Although Brown is generally considered the favorite because of his broad support and greater experience, Woodley on Friday unleashed a fresh attack on her opponent, saying that two rental units he owns in Imperial Beach violate zoning laws.

Bob Ghiloni, a building inspector for the South Bay city, said Brown was notified three months ago that two converted garage units he owns in the beach area are illegal. Ghiloni said Brown failed to meet one deadline for reconverting the apartments to garages and has been issued a second warning. If he fails to comply with that order, Brown could face a $500 fine, six months in jail, or both.

Woodley maintains the violations are evidence that Brown has “selective ethics” and believes he is “above the law.”

“Someone who’s going to be on the bench should be a person who obeys the laws, not bends them,” Woodley said. “He’s painted himself as a white knight and stressed his law enforcement background. But he doesn’t follow the law himself.”

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Brown could not be reached for comment on the matter Friday.

Another issue spurring debate in the campaign is Brown’s endorsement by a group of Municipal Court judges, including Presiding Judge H. Ronald Domnitz and Judges Robert Cooney and Frederic Link. Several Superior Court judges have contributed money to the prosecutor’s campaign as well.

Brown says the lineup of prestigious backers proves he is respected by jurists who have seen him in action in the courtroom and appreciate his extensive trial experience. But Woodley contends the support amounts to a “good-old-boys network” organized to defeat her because she is female.

‘Extremely Inappropriate’

“It’s an effort by a group of judges, the good old boys who think they stand above everyone else, to manipulate the voters,” Woodley said. “I think it’s extremely inappropriate for a judge on the bench to endorse any candidate. I think it conflicts with a judge’s commitment to be fair and impartial.”

Several judges, questioned about the “good old boys” allegation, called it preposterous.

“Our support is by no means sexist, as she suggests,” Cooney said. “Her qualifications don’t compare in any way to Mr. Brown’s. I don’t believe she ever really has a grasp on the facts in her case or of the law in her case or how to handle the two. She is just unprepared.”

Domnitz, who co-sponsored a fund-raiser for Brown, called him “an extremely capable lawyer who is eminently well qualified. I will not comment on Donna Woodley.”

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Interviews with many women judges indicate that Brown’s support is not limited by sex. Municipal Judges Lisa Guy-Schall and Lillian Lim Quon are two who believe he has stronger credentials for a seat on the bench.

“She is not as good an attorney, and I believe he has a better judicial temperament and greater background in the law,” Quon said.

Charge of Sexism

Such comments would appear to explain Brown’s endorsement by NOW’s local political action committee. But some women attorneys say they were stunned by the action, contending that Brown has a reputation for sexist comments and behavior and does not merit endorsement by the women’s organization.

Indeed, NOW is investigating complaints by some lawyers who contend Brown has made “sexually inappropriate” remarks that are demeaning to women.

Brown says the accusations are nonsense, insisting that his only problem is a sense of humor that some may fail to find funny.

“I’ve never made a remark to a woman that was intended to degrade her or insult her. I’m very concerned about people’s feelings,” Brown, a tall mustachioed man, said in an interview at his Spartan office on the seventh floor of the county courthouse. “I like a good laugh, and many people appreciate my sense of humor. A few don’t.”

Several women attorneys and judges vouched for that characterization, saying that, when it comes to treating women as equals in court, Brown makes the grade.

“Frank is a friendly individual, and his behavior has never been offensive to me,” said Guy-Schall, who worked with Brown when she was a deputy district attorney. “But clearly, all of us make inappropriate statements from time to time that we’d like to take back.”

Guy-Schall added that, when Brown was president of the Deputy District Attorneys’ Assn. from 1982 to 1984, he supported women seeking promotions and pushed for a job-sharing proposal for women returning from maternity leave.

“That was not a favored topic among the higher-ups in the office, and Frank fought hard for it,” Guy-Schall recalled.

In addition to the roster of judges backing him, Brown has won support from many defense attorneys, including the Women’s Criminal Defense Bar Assn. Also endorsing Brown are law enforcement and prosecutors groups, two gay and lesbian organizations, the mostly black Earl Gilliam Bar Assn. and the La Raza Lawyers, whose membership is largely Latino attorneys.

Five of the six candidates who competed against Brown and Woodley in the primary election have thrown their support to Brown. The sixth, Eugene Gorrow, has not endorsed either of his former opponents.

Woodley said she had not sought any judicial endorsements because she views them as inappropriate. But several people on a list of “judicial references” who were contacted to comment on her qualifications were surprised and declined to offer many opinions on her abilities.


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