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Judge upholds Huntington Beach requirement barring local lawyer from running for city attorney

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Huntington Beach lawyer Jerry Friedman was disqualified from running for city attorney because he didn’t graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Assn.
(File Photo)

An Orange County Superior Court judge determined Friday that local attorney Jerry Friedman is ineligible to run for city attorney in Huntington Beach, rejecting his attempt to have a city requirement ruled illegal.

Friedman, who earned his law degree at the University of West Los Angeles in 2013, was disqualified by City Clerk Robin Estanislau on July 30 because he didn’t graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Assn., one of the city’s four requirements to run for the office.

About a week later, Friedman’s attorney, Christine Kelly, petitioned the California Supreme Court for an order to stop the city from enforcing the rule. She called the requirement “unique, arbitrary and capricious” and a violation of Friedman’s “fundamental right to hold elected office.”

The case was passed down to the 4th District Court of Appeal and a hearing was scheduled in Orange County Superior Court for Friday, more than a week past the registrar of voters’ Sept. 11 cutoff date for the Nov. 6 ballot.

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Kelly tried to move up the hearing, but Judge Robert Moss denied that request Sept. 7, making it likely Friedman would have to sit out this election even if he got a favorable ruling about Huntington Beach’s ABA accreditation requirement.

During Friday’s hearing, Moss officially denied Friedman’s request to classify the requirement as unconstitutional and reinstate him as a candidate. Friedman and Kelly did not attend the hearing.

In a tentative ruling published Thursday, Moss said Friedman’s arguments were “without merit.” Moss added that Huntington Beach has a “valid interest” in candidates’ qualifications because its status as a charter city “imposes a wide range of responsibilities” for an elected city attorney.

“In cities with elected city attorneys, the city lacks the ability to vet candidates for the position, thus a requirement above and beyond State Bar admissions is both reasonable and desirable,” Moss said. “The fact that other cities have chosen not to impose such requirements, or have imposed different requirements, does not render the subject requirement void or unreasonable.”

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Moss also cited Clements v. Fashing (1982), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “candidacy is not a ‘fundamental right.’”

Friedman said in a statement Friday that he plans to appeal Moss’ ruling because it allows a city to “discriminate based on the school someone attended rather than allow the voters to decide who should represent them based on the candidate’s merit.”

“Voters should not be prevented from voting for whom they want simply because of a school’s statistic,” Friedman added.

As it stands, Kelly said, if Friedman wants to run again for city attorney, he would have to hope the city changes its requirement or he must return to school and graduate from an ABA-accredited institution.

With Friedman officially eliminated from the election, City Attorney Michael Gates is running unopposed.

Gates has called Friedman’s legal action “politically motivated” and “inappropriate” and said it didn’t make sense to challenge only one of the city’s four requirements.

“It’s the end of the road for Friedman challenging the city,” Gates said Friday. “We can focus on more important matters to the community and not nuisance cases.”

In 2010, the city reviewed possible charter amendments proposed by the Huntington Beach Charter Commission to “clean up” obsolete language, according to Estanislau. Voter-approved amendments included stricter qualifications for the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer.

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This is Friedman’s second run-in with the city this year. In April, Gates took legal action intended to stop Friedman’s client Daniel Horgan from circulating a petition seeking to put a proposal on the local ballot to ban semiautomatic and automatic guns in Huntington Beach. Gates argued that Horgan’s proposal was “unconstitutional, invalid and not entitled to a place on the ballot.”

Friedman hit back in May by filing a motion accusing the city of violating his client’s free-speech rights.

At the end of May, Gates asked the court to drop the city’s lawsuit after learning that Horgan wouldn’t submit signatures from his gun petition, making the case moot.

In July, Friedman filed a court motion seeking $14,385 from the city for 46 hours of work on behalf of his client. A judge denied his request Aug. 3.

Priscella.Vega@latimes.com

Twitter: @vegapriscella


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