Voters may have a tough time June 2 choosing a judge in the Rio Hondo Municipal Court district.
Incumbent Richard Van Dusen--accused of prejudice and barred from hearing criminal cases by the Los Angeles County district attorney--faces former court commissioner William Jacobson, who was kicked off the Rio Hondo bench.
"Jacobson is unpopular with the local bar, and Van Dusen is unpopular with the D.A.," summed up one local attorney.
The El Monte-based court district also encompasses South El Monte, La Puente and Rosemead. The region has 74,850 registered voters.
Meanwhile, the choice is less controversial in the West Covina-based Citrus Municipal Court district, with its 158,912 voters in seven cities, including Covina.
Incumbent Abraham Kahn, 42, generally given good marks by the legal community, is running against unknown Patrick Murphy, 37, a law professor with a small practice in Covina.
Incumbent Robert O. Young, with 18 years on the bench, is unopposed.
The Los Angeles County Bar Assn., which rates judicial candidates in contested elections, gave Van Dusen and Kahn a "qualified" rating, one step below the top, "well-qualified" rating.
However, Jacobson and Murphy received "not-qualified" ratings, the lowest given. Jacobson lacks the temperament befitting a judge and Murphy lacks the experience and competence required of a judge, the bar's selection committee said in its ratings report issued May 12.
Van Dusen, 47, a former deputy district attorney who also spent six years in private practice, used the bar ratings in 1986 to help defeat incumbent Judge J. B. Casas Jr.
But this time around, Van Dusen is not wielding them against Jacobson. Instead, his election ire focuses on Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. In August, Reiner's office put a "blanket affidavit" on Van Dusen, a ban against prosecutors trying criminal cases.
The district attorney's office believes some of Van Dusen's comments and some of the criminal penalties handed out by the judge over the past five years were inappropriate, explained Monika Blodgett, head deputy district attorney in the Rio Hondo court.
"We felt we couldn't get a fair trial in his courtroom because of excessive dismissals, inappropriate judicial demeanor, or maybe (statements) he would consider a joke, but no one else would," she said.
Van Dusen contends that the affidavit was levied because he did not buckle under to Reiner's policies on sentencings, prisoner releases and other matters.
"I think I've run afoul of every policy he's had," Van Dusen said of the county prosecutor. "There's tremendous pressure on judges to do what the district attorney says."
Van Dusen's refusal in 1988 to require bail, or jail time, of spousal rape defendants earned him his first blanket affidavit, lasting only a few weeks, he said. But in 1990, the judge drew attention again when he allowed the "necessity defense" in a trespassing case against a Roman Catholic priest involved in an abortion protest.
Despite Reiner's objection, Van Dusen permitted the priest to argue that violating the law was necessary to save human lives. The case resulted in a hung jury, 11-1 in favor of conviction. Van Dusen then banned a retrial and the district attorney appealed.
An appellate court overturned the decision, saying Van Dusen should not have permitted the necessity defense, nor should he have barred a retrial. The trespassing case is now pending.
Van Dusen argues that his judicial actions demonstrate, not that he is unfit for the bench, but that he is an independent judge. He calls himself the "people's choice" because he is the only Rio Hondo judge ever elected to office without first having been appointed to the bench by a governor.
However, Jacobson, 57, questions whether the label fits someone banned from handling the district attorney's criminal cases, which he said comprise the bulk of work at the municipal court level.
"(Van Dusen) says that he holds drug dealers and criminals fully accountable, but he doesn't handle criminal cases at all," the El Monte attorney said. "He's misleading the voters."
Taxpayers are paying Van Dusen a yearly judge's salary of $90,680 when he is, in reality, doing work normally handled by commissioners, who get paid $82,000 a year, Jacobson said.
An attorney since 1971 with civil and criminal law experience, Jacobson touts himself as the candidate able to be a "full-service, full-time" judge without Van Dusen's political liabilities.
But Jacobson carries his own political liabilities, namely his dismissal from the Rio Hondo court in 1990 after eight years as a commissioner appointed by the Rio Hondo judges. Jacobson lost the temporary post after attorneys complained that he was arrogant and hostile toward them, said San Gabriel Valley attorneys familiar with the court.
The judges who dismissed Jacobson declined comment.
Jacobson argues that his firing was politically maneuvered by Van Dusen, whose election Van Dusen opposed while still a Rio Hondo commissioner on the bench.
The allegations of arrogance are so general and unspecific that they are "like fighting a cloud of fog," he said.
Further, the candidate said, he attributes the bar's not-qualified rating to a tendency by the association to give higher rankings to incumbents.
Competency, not politics, are at issue in the race between Kahn and Murphy.
Kahn was appointed to the bench in 1988 after working as a deputy public defender, a deputy district attorney and a Los Angeles deputy city attorney.
As presiding judge this year, Kahn said he hopes to oversee the introduction of more court services for the community--such as teller machines for payment of traffic tickets without court appearances.
Kahn said he is a "proven quantity" with a demonstrated history of service, a history he said his opponent lacks.
Murphy, however, said his experience in civil litigation qualifies him for the job now held by Kahn, whose experience is primarily in criminal law.
"I understand the problems that exist on both sides," Murphy said. "I feel I have a fairly well-rounded background.
"Most of the appointments to the bench nowadays are coming straight out of criminal practice," Murphy said. "That direction is troublesome to a lot of attorneys, as well as myself, who practice civil litigation."
The Covina attorney teaches law at Glendale College of Law and regularly sits as a commissioner in the Los Angeles Municipal Court.
He received a "not-qualified" rating from the county bar association because he disagrees with the group's philosophy and has been active in legal malpractice suits against attorneys, he said.
The association gave no rating to Young, 65, because he is running unopposed for another six-year term. The former West Covina mayor and city councilman was appointed to the Citrus bench in 1975 and has been reelected three times. He also serves as an instructor at Cal Poly Pomona, Pepperdine University and USC.
Dan Oki, who was seeking the Citrus post vacated by retiring Judge John Nichols, was appointed last week to the seat. Oki's name will remain on the ballot, but the votes will not be counted.