How to judge the judges
Today’s question: Sixteen judgeships and the county district attorney are on the ballot: Make some sense out of these races for ordinary voters. Click here to read previous installment’s from this week’s Dust-Up.
On judicial candidates, get some advice
Point: Mike Spence
It is a tall order to make sense of judicial races. I get more phone calls about judges than any other issue. The Los Angeles County district attorney race is pretty easy -- Republican incumbent Steve Cooley has a pretty good track record. If opponent Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Ipsen had been able to raise some money, Cooley could have been vulnerable because of his efforts to reform the state’s three-strikes law. I’ll let you talk about Democrat Albert Robles, Eric.
The most difficult aspect of running for judicial offices is that the posts are countywide. It is easier to run in some small states than in Los Angeles County. It was a mistake for Los Angeles County municipal courts to have consolidated with the larger Superior Court. Judicial candidates had to run locally in Municipal Court elections. Now in L.A. County, voters have a difficult time acquainting themselves with the would-be jurists. Judges are also handicapped by a rule they set for themselves that prohibits them from answering questions about their political views. What is a voter to do? It’s already difficult to know your elected judges, and if you did, they couldn’t answer your questions.
My suggestion is for voters to find and ask the people or groups they trust for guidance. This year, the California Republican Lawyers Assn. (CaliforniaRepublicanLawyers.org) has a helpful guide.
I don’t know about you, Eric, but I don’t trust the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s ratings. This year’s race for Office No. 84 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court really shows why. Democrat Bob Henry, a deputy attorney general who is running for a fourth time for judge, has a curious rating. In 1992, he was rated “qualified.” He ran again in 2004 and was rated “well qualified.” In 2006, he was rated “qualified.” But in 2008, he is “not qualified.” Henry may be a Democrat, but I have a hard time believing his competence slipped that much; what I do believe is that the evaluation committee membership changed. Though I don’t support Henry (I’m voting for Pat Connolly in that race), the bar’s rating system still isn’t trustworthy.
In some contests, it is Democrat versus Democrat; Office No. 69 is one such race. I usually go with the endorsements of Supervisor Mike Antonovich or former Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Bob Philibosian, who I know and trust. For Office No. 69., I’m voting for Serena Murrillo, as she is part of a strong slate of local deputy district attorneys running for county judgeships. The whole list is available at Murillo’s website.
Two years ago, a Democratic bagel store owner beat a sitting Republican judge with a “foreign” sounding name. This year, a similar narrative is emerging in Bill Johnson, who is running for Office No. 125. Johnson has advocated for a constitutional amendment that would limit U.S. citizenship to non-Hispanic whites. Eric, I think you will agree with me on that seat, though Johnson will surely garner many ill-informed votes.
To get through this haze, find a few key people you trust for advice and hold on. But please, don’t call me at 2 a.m.
The tall order of endorsing judicial candidates
Counterpoint: Eric C. Bauman
Mike, there’s so much dust around the district attorney’s office that the county’s Democratic Party made no endorsement in the race. No viable or qualified Democrat threw their hat in the ring, so the party is silent. There’s at least one good thing I can say about Cooley: He opposes the rigid three-strikes law that has increased our state’s prison population to 167,000 inmates. That’s a pretty enlightened view for a Republican prosecutor to take.
The three-strikes law is causing a radical transformation in our state’s priorities -- we are on pace to soon spend more on corrections than higher education. Now that’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?
Mike, you are correct about the confusion and lack of information voters face when it comes to voting for judges. Our system does not make this an easy task for those who desire to make an informed choice, and our usual sources of information such as the media often don’t rise to the challenge.
The L.A. County Democratic Party is very aggressive about evaluating candidates who run for the Superior Court, but our bylaws restrict us to considering only Democrats. Every judicial candidate completes a detailed questionnaire and participates in an in-person interview. We have a diverse Judicial Interview Committee composed of about 20 people -- lawyers and non-lawyers -- who review the questionnaires, conduct the interviews and make recommendations to the party’s Central Committee.
Endorsements are ultimately adopted in most competitive judicial races. Any voter can go to county party’s website at lacdp.org to see a complete list of our judicial and other endorsements. We publicize these endorsements widely via our voter guide and e-mail distribution.
One word about last election’s bagel mishap: Our Judicial Interview Committee did not make an endorsement in that race.
Although our endorsements are strictly partisan, we treat court-retention races a bit differently. We generally do not oppose retention of appellate and Supreme Court justices unless there is a specific, compelling reason to do so. We believe judges must have the freedom to serve justice and interpret our laws fairly and reasonably without the threat of retaliation for every unpopular ruling they make.
Mike, as to the issue of Johnson’s unusual candidacy, I think we all agree the L.A. County Superior Court is no place for someone like him. The L.A. County Democratic Party has undertaken an aggressive campaign to alert Democrats in Los Angeles of Johnson’s racial separatist views and his bizarre notions of limiting citizenship to those of the “European Race” and deporting African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and others who don’t fit his criteria.
In closing today’s installment, Mike, I think we can all agree that the dust cloud unfortunately enshrouds races for L.A.'s Superior Court. Voters looking for some clarity can visit the L.A. County Democratic Party’s website to view our well researched list of endorsed judicial candidates, as well as our endorsed candidates for virtually every other race on Tuesday’s ballot.
Eric C. Bauman is chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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