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2 Judges Named; D.A. Just Benched

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson named two new judges for Orange County on Wednesday, but left outgoing Dist. Atty. Mike Capizzi off the list--a move seen by some as political payback.

On the next-to-last working day of his own term, Wilson appointed Gerald Gordon Johnston and James Selna to fill two seats on the Orange County Superior Court bench.

The decision to pass over the county’s controversial chief prosecutor was immediately hailed by the chairman of the state Republican Party, who had spearheaded an effort to block his appointment.

“I’m not surprised,” said Michael Schroeder, a Santa Ana attorney. “I think the governor’s office shared many of the same concerns that we did regarding whether Mike Capizzi was temperamentally or ethically qualified to serve as a Superior Court judge. I definitely don’t think that he is.”

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Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh declined to say why Capizzi, 59, was not named to the bench, noting only that the two appointments made “are exceptional and very beneficial for the Orange County court.”

Republicans had been angered in recent years by, among other Capizzi actions, his aggressive prosecution of county officials caught up in the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy, as well as of several Republicans--including Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach)--on charges of political corruption. Last June, the once-powerful district attorney suffered a stunning defeat in his bid to become the Republican nominee for state attorney general, losing by a 2-1 ratio.

Capizzi, Orange County’s district attorney for nine years, said he had mixed emotions about not being appointed to the bench. “I’ve got lots of options, and being a judge was one of them,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the next stage in my career, which is practicing law in Orange County.”

He said he had no regrets regarding his conduct in office. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Capizzi said. “I’m very comfortable with what we’ve done and I have no regrets over any decisions.”

Capizzi had been one of about a dozen applicants for appointment to the bench, said Carl Holmes, the county’s public defender and member of the bar association’s judiciary committee. He declined to say how the committee rated Capizzi.

According to a source close to the judicial nominating process, Capizzi was strongly backed for the appointment by some influential Orange County Republicans.

“This was one of the more challenging appointments to be made,” the source said. “Nearly every significant Republican player in the county had a candidate that they favored, and one thing about Orange County Republicans is that they are not shy about making their views known.”

The two winning candidates are both highly regarded in county Republican circles, according to the governor’s spokesman.

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Selna, 53, is a Corona del Mar attorney with 28 years of legal experience. “This guy is hot stuff,” Walsh said. “He’s litigated some of the most complicated civil actions in the state and we were very fortunate to land him.”

Johnston, 41, of Sacramento, is a former Orange County deputy district attorney who has served as deputy director for law enforcement and counsel for the California Environmental Protection Agency since 1995. “It is helpful to have an appointment who is an expert in environmental law,” Walsh said.

Johnston will succeed Judge Richard Leusebrink, who has retired, while Selna will succeed Judge Anthony J. Rackauckas, who resigned the bench Wednesday to assume Capizzi’s office next week.

Superior court judges earn $110,612 a year.

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