Endorsements for L.A. County Superior Court

The June 8 primary ballot includes 21 candidates competing for six positions on the Los Angeles County Superior Court. That’s a fraction of the court’s more than 400 judges, the vast majority of whom are appointed by the governor. It’s too small a number for the electorate to be able to correct any perceived political, gender or racial imbalances on the court, or to try tinkering with the proportion of prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers or civil practitioners who come to the bench. This allows voters to focus on one basic question: Which candidate in each race would make the best judge?

But voters have little information on which to base their choices. Candidates vie for attention by buying spots on the slate mailers generally sent out in the final weeks of campaign season, or by being creative on the three-word designations that follow each candidate’s name on the ballot. A deputy district attorney, for example, might figure he’d do better with a title like “gang homicide prosecutor.” More than a few candidates have tried to game the system by moonlighting for a semester or two at a community law school and then designating themselves “attorney/law professor” on the ballot.

The Times editorial board examines the candidates and talks with lawyers who have worked with and against them in court. Where possible, we watch them in action in the courtroom. We meet with each of them to assess their knowledge, competence, integrity, temperament and demeanor. We endorse the candidates we believe to be the best of those running for each seat.

We take these elections seriously. The Los Angeles court system may be large enough that the occasional unqualified jurist sent to the bench by either the governor or voters can be assigned to a less important courtroom where the consequences of his or her lack of ability will be less serious and will affect fewer people. But even in out-of-the-way places, incompetent judges undermine justice for the people who appear before them. And now, with the Superior Court laying off hundreds of courtroom clerks and other support staff, and projecting further layoffs in the near future because of diminished funding from Sacramento, the court can ill afford middling judges.

Three of the six races are for open seats, created because a sitting judge vacated the position, or announced plans to do so, during a window of time in which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could not or did not make an appointment. The other three races feature sitting judges who have been challenged. Candidates must win a majority of the vote to avoid a November runoff.

The Times makes the following endorsements for Superior Court judge:

Office No. 28: Randy Hammock. Eight candidates filed to run for this seat, and although several might make passable judges, only two — Hammock and Mark K. Ameli — excel. Ameli is an accomplished civil litigator and would be a credit to the bench. But The Times opts for Hammock, a lawyer who also has an excellent civil litigation track record but set aside his practice to serve as a referee — the equivalent of a judge for most purposes — presiding over foster care, adoption and other matters in the Dependency Court. Hammock says he would like to keep the same assignment if elected, and although that won’t be solely his decision to make, the Superior Court is in need of top-flight dependency judges.

The other candidates are Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Chris Garcia, Deputy Public Defender C. Edward Mack, sole practitioner Elizabeth Moreno, Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward J. Nison, mediator Kendall C. “Ken” Reed and Hawthorne Assistant City Atty. Kim Smith. Nison is making his third run, and although he might make a good judge, he does not stack up against Hammock or Ameli.

Office No. 35: Soussan (Suzanne) Bruguera. This decision is easy. Bruguera, a former deputy attorney general, is an experienced and well-regarded judge who has served on the Los Angeles County Superior Court for a decade and on another court for a decade before that. She is being challenged by Douglas W. Weitzman, a lawyer and realtor who is making his third run for the bench. This page was unimpressed with Weitzman in his earlier attempts, and we’ve seen little growth in the intervening years. Now, instead of vying for an open seat, he’s seeking to unseat a worthy judge — yet he fails to articulate any good reason that she should be removed from the court. This is particularly troubling because of the penchant of voters (who have little other information to go on) to reject judges with foreign-sounding names. That phenomenon almost certainly came into play in the 2006 defeat of able judge Dzintra Janavs. We urge voters to do themselves a double service: Retain the well-qualified Bruguera and keep the unqualified Weitzman off the bench.

Office No. 73: Laura A. Matz. This is yet another instance in which an outstanding judge is being challenged for no good reason by a lawyer who is ill-suited for the bench. Matz served ably first on the Glendale Municipal Court and, for a decade now, on the Superior Court. Her ability and intellect earned her a rare temporary assignment to serve on California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal. Her challenger, civil practitioner Marvin G. Fischler, has demonstrated neither that there is any cause for ousting Matz nor that he would make a better judge. Voters should keep Matz.

Office No. 107: Tony de los Reyes. Two excellent candidates stand out in this three-person race. Deputy Dist. Atty. Valerie Salkin would probably make a fine judge. But The Times gives the nod to civil practitioner and Los Angeles Civil Service Commission member De los Reyes because of his more than 40 years of courtroom experience and his service as a hearing officer in Los Angeles police officer disciplinary matters. De los Reyes exemplifies the maturity and demeanor one looks for in a judge. He would make an excellent addition to the court.

In addition to Salkin, De los Reyes is facing civil practitioner R. Stephen Bolinger. Bolinger might make a good judge as well, but he does not rise to the standard of either of his competitors.

Office No. 117: Alan Schneider. Deputy Dist. Atty. Schneider is the easy standout in this four-candidate field, in large part due to his reputation as one of the most capable prosecutors in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Schneider is a master of the courtroom, having tried 40 homicide cases in his 15-year career. The best prosecutors don’t automatically make the best judges, but defense lawyers who have faced off against Schneider also praise him for his integrity, fairness and demeanor. Some voters may pick prosecutors in judicial races because they’re expected to be “tough on crime,” and others may reject them for fear they’ll be unfair to defendants. But the reason to pick the good prosecutors — and Schneider is one of the best — is that they understand the mechanics, as well as the principles, of justice. They understand how to make a courtroom work fairly as well as efficiently.

The choice is easier because none of Schneider’s three competitors come close. Deputy City Atty. Tom Griego is politically well connected (his brother is a well-known Democratic political consultant), but that’s no reason to elect him to the Superior Court. William Mitchell Margolin and Pattricia M. Vienna would both be interesting judges because of their other careers. In addition to being lawyers, Margolin is an actor and Vienna a flight attendant. But Margolin fails to present any good reasons to elect him to the bench, and Vienna fails to demonstrate that she is anywhere near as qualified as Schneider.

Office No. 131: Maren Elizabeth Nelson. Nelson is the third of three sitting Los Angeles County Superior Court judges who have had to raise money and spend time off the bench campaigning to keep their jobs by sparsely qualified challengers. Judges should not be immune from challenges. On the contrary, the current system is a good balance between an all-elected bench, in which judges become full-time politicians, and an all-appointed judiciary, in which they have little accountability to the public. California judges have enough independence to render principled but unpopular decisions without being unfairly thrown out of office. But a challenger must present a better reason for challenging an incumbent than that he simply wants her job.

Nelson’s challenger, Jim Garo Baklayan, who has a small practice devoted mostly to his family business, fails to demonstrate either that Nelson should be off the bench or that he should be on it.