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Panel Considers 10 for 2 Judge Positions : Appointments: The governor has until Feb. 5 to name replacements for retirees from Municipal and Superior court posts, or an election must be held. A January announcement is expected.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After leaving two Ventura County judgeships vacant for nearly a year, Gov. Pete Wilson has sent the names of 10 local attorneys to the state commission that evaluates judicial candidates.

The nominees include four Municipal Court judges who seek elevation to the Superior Court, and a deputy district attorney who hopes to join the nine former prosecutors who already sit on the Municipal Court. The nominees include one black, one Latino and one woman.

Wilson has until Feb. 5 to name replacements for Superior Court Judge Robert J. Soares and Municipal Judge Lee E. Cooper Jr., both of whom retired in January. If the governor fails to fill the posts by then, they will be filled by election in June.

“We certainly will not let the seats go to an election,” said Franz Wisner, a spokesman for the governor. “We should make an announcement sometime in January.” He said Wilson is waiting for the state’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission to report back on the candidates.

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Wisner said one reason for the delay in filling the vacancies was Wilson’s decision not to automatically consider candidates who had gone through the evaluation process during the administration of former Gov. George R. Deukmejian. Instead, would-be judges had to submit new applications to the Wilson Administration, which took office in January.

“We asked everyone to reapply,” Wisner said. “That’s one of the reasons for the delays. We had to start the process from square one.”

Other Wilson spokesmen have cited the state’s budget crisis as another reason that the governor has only recently turned his attention to long-vacant appointments. When Wilson took office, about three dozen judgeships were vacant statewide. More than six months passed before the first opening was filled in late July.

Wisner said he could not disclose who is under consideration for the Ventura County judgeships, but numerous attorneys confirmed that the commission is seeking opinions about 10 candidates. Questionnaires on each candidate have been sent to several hundred attorneys, including all of the county’s judges, according to those familiar with the process.

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The attorneys are asked to rate the candidates on several qualities, including experience, work ethic, integrity, competency and judicial temperament. The candidates are then interviewed, usually by two members of the 28-member commission. The full commission then decides on whom to recommend to the governor.

The commission’s screening process is confidential, but sources identified seven candidates for the Superior Court vacancy:

* Charles W. Campbell Jr., 44, a Municipal Court judge since 1988. A former deputy district attorney, Campbell has a degree in English from Dartmouth College and a law degree from Glendale College of Law.

* Herbert Curtis III, 44, a Municipal Court judge since 1984 and now its presiding judge. He earned undergraduate and law degrees at Cleveland State University and also served in the district attorney’s office for several years. He is the only black on the Ventura County bench.

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* Arturo Gutierrez, 43, a Municipal Court judge since 1981. He obtained his law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and was a deputy public defender in Ventura County before former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown named him to the bench. He is the only Latino judge in Ventura County.

* Wayne E. Peterson, 44, a Westlake Village resident who practices at the Santa Monica law firm of Haight, Brown & Bonesteel. Peterson has a degree in sociology from the University of Illinois and a law degree from Northwestern University.

* Richard A. Regnier, 60, a Camarillo resident who has practiced law in Ventura County for 28 years, now as a sole practitioner. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school, Regnier is a former deputy district attorney and criminal defense attorney who now focuses primarily on civil litigation.

* James T. Sherren, 53, a partner in the oldest law firm in Ventura, Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham. A onetime deputy district attorney, Sherren now does mostly civil trial work. He earned his law degree at Boalt Hall.

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* John R. Smiley, 44, a Municipal Court judge since 1986. He is a graduate of Princeton University and Southwestern University School of Law. Before his appointment to the bench, he practiced business, real estate and family law.

Peterson is also being considered for the Municipal Court seat, according to several sources who said they have received questionnaires about him. Also being considered for the Municipal Court vacancy are:

* James D. Ellison, 39, a Ventura County deputy district attorney for 12 years who now works in the major crimes unit. He is a graduate of UCLA Law School.

* Roland Purnell, a former Superior Court commissioner who now works as a research attorney for the court. He is a former FBI agent and deputy district attorney who earned his law degree at Hastings College of Law.

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* Helene Stone, 52, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County. Although she and her husband, U.S. Magistrate Robert M. Stone, work in Los Angeles, they have maintained a home in Ventura for many years. She earned her law degree at Ventura College of Law.

Since Wilson only recently began making judicial appointments, local officials said they have no idea of what considerations will go into his selections. However, while he was a U.S. senator, Wilson’s nominees to the federal bench tended to be former prosecutors highly respected for both their judicial temperament and legal abilities.

Of the 10 candidates for the Ventura County judgeships, only two contributed to the governor’s election campaign: Regnier, who gave a total of $1,850, and Smiley, who donated $250, according to state records. All of the nominees are Republicans except for Ellison and Stone, who are registered as Democrats.

Several attorneys noted that there are no minority judges on the Superior Court, which might help Gutierrez and Curtis. The fact that no women sit on the Municipal Court is considered a boost for Stone.

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Experience as a Municipal Court judge can be a double-edged sword for those who aspire to Superior Court, several attorneys said. The judicial experience is a plus, they said, but it also gives a judge the opportunity to make mistakes--and enemies. Only seven of the 15 judges now sitting on the Superior Court previously served on the Municipal Court.

Smiley is seen by some attorneys as being handicapped by the fact that he had little courtroom experience before his appointment to the Municipal Court. Campbell is viewed as exceptionally bright but, with less than three years on the bench, perhaps too inexperienced at this point for the Superior Court.

Gutierrez has earned the nickname El Maximo among lawyers because of his tough sentences, an appellation that is considered ironic given his background as a former public defender. Curtis is described as extremely personable but sometimes reluctant to address tough legal issues.

Regnier and Sherren are longtime trial attorneys who are considered well-connected in the local legal community. Peterson, by contrast, is a virtual unknown, having practiced in Los Angeles County for most of his career. But so was Richard D. Aldrich, who was appointed to the Ventura County Superior Court in the last days of the Deukmejian administration after practicing mostly in Los Angeles.

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Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, who has been one of the most influential local advisers in past gubernatorial selections, is known to support his chief deputy, Vincent J. O’Neill Jr., for a judgeship, but O’Neill’s name is not being circulated for the current vacancies, according to those familiar with the process.

O’Neill had applied to become a judge during the Deukmejian administration, and it is not known whether he reapplied to Wilson. He could not be reached for comment.

No matter who is appointed to the current vacancies, court officials say there soon will be more openings for prospective judges.

For one thing, the elevation of Campbell, Curtis, Gutierrez or Smiley would create a new vacancy on the Municipal Court.

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In addition, Municipal Judge John J. Hunter has told several associates that he will not seek reelection when his current term expires at the end of next year. Friends say Hunter plans to serve out his term rather than resign early, allowing his seat to be filled by election rather than appointment.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors recently voted to create a second position of Municipal Court commissioner. A commissioner is hired by the court on a contract basis to act basically as a judge in some civil and traffic matters. Attorney John R. Paventi is now the Municipal Court’s only commissioner, with a contract that expires next October.

Sheila Gonzalez, the clerk and chief administrator of the Superior and Municipal courts, said the judges are working on a plan to have the commissioners work for both courts, depending on where the need is greatest.

“There is so much up in the air right now, there’s an opportunity for a lot of changes,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the first time in a long time that there has been so much opportunity.”

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