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Judge’s Ranking as ‘Not Qualified’ Heats Up Race

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emphatic. Decisive. Demanding.

That’s how his many supporters describe Superior Court Judge Ronald M. Sohigian.

Stern. Offensive. Demeaning.

That’s from his long list of detractors. Some critics contend that the judge has even shown gender and racial bias on the bench, contentions Sohigian vigorously denies.

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But in a stinging rebuke to a sitting judge, the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. last week rated Sohigian “not qualified” for reelection March 26. The bar said he “lacks the necessary judicial temperament” to keep the job he has held since 1988.

The rating marked only the third time since 1976 that an incumbent Los Angeles Superior Court judge has been found “not qualified,” according to the bar’s records.

And it promises to focus unusual public attention on a campaign that remains a quirk in California politics--the local judicial election, typically dull and boring, often easy to ignore.

Not this one.

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Sohigian downplayed the import of the bar’s rating, calling it a product of lawyers with big egos eager to get back at him over petty slights they perceived they received in his courtroom. In an interview, he said he makes no apologies for making attorneys “measure up to high standards.”

But his challengers, each of whom received higher ratings from the bar, have seized upon it as a means of doing the nearly impossible: dislodging an incumbent Superior Court judge.

Beverly Hills lawyer Ronald S. Smith, rated “well-qualified” by the bar, said: “These are the judge’s peers. He’s had peer review. And the peer review has come back with two words: not qualified. It’s not Ron Smith throwing mud at the judge. The Los Angeles County Bar has told the truth.”

Added Santa Monica criminal defense attorney Charles L. Lindner, rated “qualified”: “The incumbent is rated unqualified by the county bar. He has a significant personality disorder that causes him to degrade those in front of him, litigants and lawyers. Those are good reasons for people to vote for me rather than him.”

The rhetoric is hot. The cold truth, however, is that incumbents almost always survive the ballot box.

Under California’s system, the governor appoints the vast majority of Municipal and Superior Court judges; state law requires an appointed judge to run for office at the next election and, after that, at six-year intervals.

In the 1990s in Los Angeles County, not one incumbent Superior Court judge has lost an election. In the ‘80s, two lost--and one of them was literally on his deathbed.

Most incumbents never get challenged. Unlike Court of Appeal and Supreme Court judges, who are required to win public confirmation of their 12-year terms, the names of Superior Court judges who draw no opposition do not even show up on the ballot.

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In this election, voters will cast ballots for only six of 74 Los Angeles Superior Court seats. The 68 other judges summoned no challenge and are guaranteed six more years in a black robe. The job pays $107,390 a year.

And two of the six races aren’t races at all. In those, two current Municipal Court judges opted to move up to open Superior Court slots but drew no opposition--meaning there really are only four contested slots.

One of the four is a three-way race featuring two Municipal Court judges and a law professor; in another, a Municipal Court judge is facing an attorney; in a third, incumbent Superior Court Judge Reginald Dunn is squaring off against Kenneth Griffin, a lawyer who once lost a case in his court.

Both Smith and Lindner opted to take on Sohigian.

Smith, 49, a former prosecutor in Riverside County who frequently tried murder cases, has been in private practice in Los Angeles since 1976, where he has concentrated on civil litigation.

Lindner, 48, is one of Los Angeles’ most experienced criminal defense lawyers. Since 1974, he has defended 13 capital cases; prosecutors have obtained the death penalty but once.

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Lindner helped write the fiery closing argument that attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. delivered on behalf of O.J. Simpson.

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Chagrined at the assembly-line quality to criminal cases so typical in the Los Angeles courts, Lindner said he wants to be elected so he can mete out “individualized justice.” Smith, meanwhile, said he wants to “put decency and civility back in the justice system.”

But both challengers--and the incumbent--agree that the election is, in the first instance, a referendum on Sohigian.

The judge said he is proud to stand on his record.

Sohigian, 58, has heard both criminal and civil cases since being appointed to the bench in 1988--currently, he hears civil motions and trials. He estimates that he has decided 17,000 cases, many of them “demanding and cutting-edge.”

In 1991, Sohigian ruled that the City Council acted properly when it overturned a controversial Los Angeles Police Commission decision to put then-Chief Daryl F. Gates on involuntary leave in the wake of the police beating of Rodney G. King. A divided appeal court affirmed Sohigian’s ruling.

At candidates forums in recent weeks, the judge has passed out a list of judges, public officials, lawyers and “community leaders” who have endorsed him. Single-spaced, it goes on for eight pages.

“I’d give 10 years of my life to have one-tenth of his brains,” said a colleague, Superior Court Judge Nancy Brown.

The judge doesn’t lack for brains, his detractors concede. Instead, they charge, he has demonstrated while on the bench a penchant for arrogance and insensitive remarks.

In 1990, he fined a lawyer $650 for filing a brief that was 23 pages long, eight pages too long under court rules. But he didn’t stop there--he also ordered the attorney to explain to other judges in the future that he’d been fined.

An appeals court overturned Sohigian’s order, calling it “wholly inappropriate and offensive.”

In connection with that incident, the state Commission on Judicial Performance sent Sohigian a private letter--what judges call a “stinger"--that advised caution or expressed disapproval without imposing formal discipline. In a report, the panel said Sohigian’s order had “humiliated the attorney.”

That same year, Sohigian was deciding a case that involved the issue of when someone is actually arrested. As he likes to do, the judge turned to a hypothesis.

“Let’s imagine,” he inquired of the deputy attorney general handling the case, a female lawyer, “that you are a prostitute walking down the street. . .”

Subsequently, the lawyer wrote Sohigian a letter telling him that his example was painful and inappropriate.

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Sohigian recalled last week that he called the attorney immediately upon receiving her letter and apologized.

“That’s true,” she said, asking that her name not be used. “But when he apologized, he also said he couldn’t understand why I was offended by his remarks.”

A 1993 incident involved a lawyer whose client had come to court to be sentenced. The client, an African American man, had dressed nicely as a sign of respect for the court; urging leniency, the lawyer pointed that out to the judge.

Sohigian, however, was unmoved: “What I said to the lawyer was, ‘Look, I’m not going to perpetuate some distinction between house slaves and field slaves.’ ”

In an interview, the judge said he meant the remark to mean that the defendant was entitled to be “judged as a man,” without regard to what he was wearing.

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The defense lawyer, Shawn Snider Chapman, said in an interview that she thought the judge meant well. “But I thought the metaphor was really, really bad, shocking and horrible,” she said.

The prosecutor in the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lucienne Coleman, who is white, said the judge’s remark confused and offended her. “The kid just came to court like everybody should come dressed to court,” Coleman said.

In another incident involving Chapman, Sohigian said he once responded to an argument she made on behalf of another black client by telling her, “Well, you may just be marginally black.”

“It had nothing to do with her pigmentation,” he said last week. “It had to do with her manifestation of attitudes regarding other African Americans and her suppositions of what my attitudes were going to be.”

Chapman, who at the time was a deputy public defender and now works with Cochran, recalls the incident differently. She said he made the remark while he and she were chatting about her hair while court was out of session.

“I didn’t think it was necessarily racist,” she said. “I thought it was just bizarre.”

Having had many months since to consider his comments, Sohigian said: “In retrospect, it may be that those categories are so painful, those wounds are so raw, that one dare not use that language.”

Without being asked, he added: “I guess I should take the thing head on and tell you I have absolutely no racial or gender or ethnic bias. Absolutely none.”

“He may not be racist or sexist,” Lindner retorted. “He may be an equal opportunity humiliator who humiliates, embarrasses and demeans everyone.”

In late 1993, referring to the “house slave” remark and to others, Buzz magazine named Sohigian one of the “eight worst politicians in L.A.”

Last week, Sohigian called the Buzz article “very superficial.” He said he really is a “very affectionate and relaxed” man, quiet and “easy to get along with in social settings.” On the bench, however, he said he feels duty-bound to be firm, emphatic and in control of the proceedings.

From his vantage point, he said, the Bar Assn. rating looks like a popularity contest. “The bar itself has expressed no criticism of my ability, dedication, scholarship, work ethic, efficiency or fairness,” Sohigian said. “None of that.”

“Just temperament,” said Rex S. Heinke, chairman of the Bar Assn. committee that produced the ratings.

Sohigian noted that a rating of “not qualified” is not necessarily fatal. Judge William P. Kennedy, rated “not qualified” in 1976, did lose. But Judge Henry Patrick Nelson, deemed “unqualified” in 1988, won handily.

To keep his seat, Sohigian has retained the services of Cerrell Associates, a consulting firm used by many judges. Hal Dash, president of the firm, said Sohigian will spend “low six figures” on the race, including about $50,000 for a ballot statement and the rest primarily for slate mailers--to both Republicans and Democrats, since judicial elections are nonpartisan.

By contrast, Lindner has raised some $4,000.

With cash in hand, a ballot statement already paid for and bundles of slate mailers set to go, Sohigian said he is “quite confident” he will be reelected, no matter the verdict of the Bar Assn.: “I think firmness in the courtroom and decisiveness are significant parts of a judge’s duty, and I think the public is entitled to that. The public demands it.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Judicial Candidates

Here are the jurists running for judgeships in Los Angeles County. The election is March 26.

SUPERIOR COURT

Office No. 3

Frederick N. Wapner

Office No. 18

Charles L. Lindner

Ronald S. Smith

Ronald M. Sohigian*

Office No. 25

Michael S. Luros

F. Bentley Mooney Jr.

Office No. 38

Maureen Duffy-Lewis

Office No. 39

Reginald A. Dunn*

Kenneth G. Griffin

Office No. 58

Karl W. Jaeger

Stephen Marcus

Pat Murphy

*

MUNICIPAL COURT

Alhambra Judicial District

Office No. 2

Michael A. Kanner*

Dennis M. Orfirer

Antelope Judicial District

Office No. 2

Larry H. Layton

Chesley N. McKay Jr.*

Citrus Judicial District

Office No. 1

Nida Brinkis Alex

Stephen J. Alexander

Allen D. Annis

Richard A. Espinoza

Thomas Falls

Larry Larson

Mark Peters

Citrus Judicial District

Office No. 2

John J. Harrold

R. Bruce Minto*

Citrus Judicial District

Office No. 3

Bradley J. McFadden

John C. Monohan

Rolf Michael Treu*

Citrus Judicial District

Office No. 4

Michael M. Duggan*

Rodney J. Espinoza

Laurie R. Harrold

East Los Angeles Judicial District

Office No. 1

Juventino B. Casas Jr.

Ruth A. Kwan*

East Los Angeles Judicial District

Office No. 2

Tony Luna

Armando V. Moreno

Teresa Sanchez-Gordon

Los Cerritos Judicial District

Office No. 1

Lyle MacKenzie

Los Cerritos Judicial District

Office No. 2

Lance Haddix

Leland H. Tipton

Pasadena Judicial District

Elvira R. Mitchell*

Fred Rotenberg

* Indicates incumbent


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