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Judicial Ratings Ruffle Feathers in Pasadena

May 22, 1986|DEBORAH HASTINGS | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — Until last week, the five judicial candidates vying for an open seat on the Municipal Court bench here were engaged in a polite and uneventful June 3 primary race.

But controversial ratings released last Thursday by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. have caused tempers to flare among the five first-time candidates in the nonpartisan election.

Of the five, only Deputy Dist. Atty. Judson Morris received a "well qualified" grade, the highest of three ratings given by the association.

Attorneys Bill Paparian and Helen Bunt Smith were rated "not qualified" to hold the office, grades which angered both. Municipal Court Commissioner Kevil W. Martin said he was equally disturbed by the "qualified" rating he received.

FOR THE RECORD - Broader Scope for Candidate's Practice
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 1986 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 15 Column 4 Zones Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in the May 22 San Gabriel Valley section described Municipal Court Judge candidate Helen Bunt Smith as a family law attorney. Smith's legal practice also handles other types of cases including probate, personal injury and criminal matters.

Rated as 'Qualified'

Municipal Court Commissioner Robert Lutz was rated "qualified," a mark that he said does not "unduly concern" him.

Paparian and Smith accused the association of political favoritism in its rating procedures and said, as did other Superior and Municipal Court candidates in Los Angeles County who received unfavorable marks, that the system is unfair.

"I really think that what you're looking at is a courthouse popularity contest," said Paparian, who has emerged as a spokesman for Pasadena's increasingly vocal and influential Armenian community. The 37-year-old attorney, while admitting that he was angered by his rating, said he doubted it would have any effect on the primary election.

"I would be concerned if I thought the evaluation had any integrity and was a fair one," he said.

Lack of Experience Cited

Paparian was rated as "not qualified" because he "lacks experience necessary to be a judge of the Municipal Court," the association's rating report said.

The bar association has rated judicial candidates since 1976, using confidential questionnaires and interviews with candidates and their professional associates. An association committee then ranks the candidates as "well qualified," "qualified" or "not qualified" based on professional ability, experience, integrity and temperament. Those who receive less than the highest rating are invited to address the committee. Smith, Paparian and Martin said they had done so, but were not satisfied with the results.

The association does not reveal specific information involved in the ratings, a practice that infuriated Smith, 43, a Pasadena attorney rated "unqualified" because she "lacks the judicials skills necessary to be a judge of the Municipal Court," the association's report said.

Practicing for 13 Years

"How can you answer something that isn't even defined and, second of all, how can you answer it when you don't even know what it is?" Smith asked. "I've been practicing law for 13 years, doing all sorts of things, so I don't know what they mean."

In responding to such criticism, Donald Wessling, chairman of the committee that evaluated the candidates, said, "It doesn't surprise me that someone who is disappointed with their evaluation would seek to find fault with it.

"But the committee does receive information that is given in confidence," Wessling added. "If you were to reveal who the information is from, you would find that those who have information would be reluctant to give it."

'It's So Unfair'

Smith, who is married and has two children, said she did not know what effect the rating would have on her campaign. "It's so unfair of a system. . . . I just hope the public will understand this," she said.

Morris, who was rated "well qualified" by the association, said he found no fault with the rating procedure. "I have every confidence in the rating system, which is easy for me to say, of course."

The five candidates in the Pasadena Judicial District, which has about 120,000 registered voters and encompasses Sierra Madre, San Marino, South Pasadena, Pasadena and portions of Temple City and Altadena, are vying for the office being vacated by Municipal Court Judge Samuel L. Laidig, who is retiring after 15 years on the bench. To avoid a runoff in the November general election, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the votes cast.

Economics Over Ego

Municipal Court Commissioner Martin said his decision to seek higher office was "really economic for me, rather than ego." In Pasadena Municipal Court, Martin said, commissioners and judges perform virtually the same duties. "The reason I'm running," he said, "is there's a little bit of an increase in pay and the retirement system is a hell of a lot better. As long as I'm doing the job, I figured I might as well have the title, too."

Martin, 43, has more than 14 years of experience in legal affairs, having worked six years in the Pasadena city prosecutor's office and two years in private practice before being appointed a commissioner in 1981. He is divorced and has two children.

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