The rare defeat of a highly regarded sitting judge ousted from the bench Tuesday by a bagel store owner who’d barely practiced law in the last decade sent a jolt through Los Angeles County legal circles, leading some to question whether the system to select judges needs overhauling.
When the ballots were counted it wasn’t even close: Judge Dzintra Janavs, a 20-year veteran of the bench, lost by almost 8 percentage points to Lynn Diane Olson, a Hermosa Beach resident and business owner who only late last year reactivated her state bar membership.
Rare in judicial contests, the race had drawn preelection attention because of speculation by political consultants and court observers that Janavs could be particularly vulnerable -- and even may have been targeted -- because of her unusual name.
The morning after the vote, Janavs went back to work in the Writs and Receivers Court, where she is the assistant presiding judge. Olson, mother of a 5-month-old daughter, kept a long-scheduled appointment with the dentist.
“I am thrilled. I am humbled. I am energized. I don’t even know what to say,” Olson said.
In the legal community, a different mood prevailed: shock.
“Judges are devastated by the loss of an esteemed colleague,” said Judge Terry Friedman, president of the California Judges Assn. He said he could recall only two other times in 30 years when a sitting judge was voted out of office.
Janavs, whose accent still has a trace of her native Latvia, said she had been inundated with calls from lawyers and judges.
“All I hear is ‘outraged,’ ‘disgusted,’ ‘appalled,’ ” Janavs said. “I’m not a person that uses those kinds of adjectives.”
When asked what words she would use, Janavs said: “Let me put it this way, my reaction is: Money can buy anything. That’s my reaction. My name probably didn’t help. But had she not spent a fortune on these slates, I don’t think my name alone would have helped her.”
Olson, who was rated “not qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., outspent Janavs by more than 2 to 1, giving about $100,000 of her own money compared with about $42,000 in contributions reported by May 20 by the judge.
Janavs is valued by court administrators for her analytical skills and ability to handle what many consider to be one of the toughest judicial assignments: fast-paced decisions involving cases that include injunctions and restraining orders being sought by governments, electoral candidates, businesses, environmental groups and media outlets.
Superior Court Presiding Judge William McLaughlin called Janavs “an American success story” and said she would be deeply missed. A Republican, Janavs fled Latvia with her parents during World War II and went on to become one of the first women to attend Boalt Hall School of Law in Berkeley. Her parents were lawyers in Latvia but worked as a gardener and a housekeeper in this country, Janavs’ campaign consultant said.
Although Olson beat Janavs, she will not take her exact position on the bench. As with all new judges, Olson is likely to be assigned to a traffic or arraignment court to learn the ropes, court officials said.
She is a graduate of the University of Illinois law school and practiced commercial litigation law for four years before leaving to open Manhattan Bread & Bagel in Manhattan Beach with her husband in 1992. A recent remodel gave the store on busy Sepulveda Boulevard a chic modern facade, and patrons say the shop is known for its ginger snaps.
On the ballot in the nonpartisan race, Olson’s profession was listed as “attorney at law.” Janavs appeared as “judge of the Superior Court.”
Friedman said he could see no reason for voters to oust Janavs, who was endorsed by a long list of county officials, including Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca, four of the five county supervisors and 18 sitting Superior Court judges.
Janavs was one of only two judicial candidates of 28 in the county rated “exceptionally well qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.
“But she has an odd name. And she is thrown out by someone who is not even practicing law,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “It makes me very troubled by our whole judicial election process. This is the poster child for how really messed up things are.”
Olson and her husband, Michael Keegan, a Hermosa Beach councilman, said they did not target Janavs because of her name, but rather because she was Republican.
“I targeted Janavs because of her political affiliation, time on the bench and what I hear about her from people in the legal community,” Olson said, referring to Janavs’ reputation for courtroom gruffness.
Thousands of campaign mailers funded by Olson, as well as about 50,000 e-mails directed at registered Democrats, emphasized the candidate’s endorsement by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
As for her “not qualified” rating, Olson said she chose not to meet with bar association officials. “When have they ever not endorsed a sitting judge?” she said. “I’m not sure ever.”
She said she didn’t match the “cookie cutter” model of judicial candidates, who largely have been prosecutors.
Many longtime members of the bench expressed distress over the turn of events.
Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. said Janavs’ defeat might prompt “some public outcry about the need for voters to be better informed about the judicial qualifications of who they are voting for.... The whole idea of democracy is based upon informed voters.”
Most of California’s 1,500 Superior Court judges never face election. Once appointed, they come up for retention election after six years but only appear on the ballot if someone challenges them. However, if a judge vacates a seat close to an election, the successor is not appointed but is chosen by the voters.
Political consultants have long complained that judicial races -- particularly in a county as large as Los Angeles -- are somewhat arbitrary. Few voters have heard of any of the candidates, and yet most vote anyway. The voters’ choice often comes down to the scant information in front of them in the voting booth: the candidates’ names and job descriptions.
How professions are listed is seen as so valuable that it is not uncommon for potential judges to sue each other over the descriptions. Janavs, in fact, sometimes ruled on such lawsuits.
State Court of Appeal Justice Nora M. Manella, former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles as well as a past U.S. District Court judge, said she was “in despair” over Olson’s election. “I am ashamed to be a member of this electorate,” Manella said. “Everyone I’ve talked to
Olson said she was well aware that she would not be greeted in Superior Court with “open arms” but voiced hope that the controversy would soon be behind her. Still, she said some of the bagel lady references “stung a little.”
“We’ve run a very successful business, and I have experiences that I think will be good to have on the bench.... I haven’t just been boiling bagels,” she said.
Janavs said she wishes that voters had a better way of learning about candidates for judgeships. She said the demands of her job limited the amount of campaigning she could do.
Olson and her husband, Keegan, said they believe that, in the end, they ran a more aggressive race. “We never thought we’d win,” said Keegan. “I kept thinking [Janavs] would turn it up at the end, but she just sat still.”
Times staff writers Henry Weinstein and Lynn Doan contributed to this report.