The first contested election for a judge's seat in the 34-year history of the Rio Hondo Municipal Court District has centered on charges by the challenger that the incumbent is lenient on criminals and does not live in the judicial district.
"This is the first time the people have been able to choose who they want for a judge and they need new blood over at that court," said candidate Richard Van Dusen, an attorney, who also charged that the courts are mismanaged.
No sitting judge in the district has been challenged before, according to court officials.
Municipal Judge J.B. Casas, who is seeking election to the bench for the first time since his 1983 appointment by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., disputed his opponent's charges by citing his endorsement by the Professional Peace Officers Assn. and said that even though he lives outside the district, he understands community concerns.
Peace Officers Group
"Basically they (the endorsers) felt he was well qualified and well respected in the community," said Sharon Lawin, a spokeswoman for the peace officers group, which has district attorney investigators, deputy marshals and deputy sheriffs as members.
"Mr. Van Dusen's campaign has been totally negative and mud-slinging," said Casas, 44, who was named presiding judge of the four-judge court in July, 1985.
"He goes around searching the files trying find a little thing that he can point his finger at me on," he added.
The Rio Hondo court covers El Monte, San Gabriel, South El Monte, South San Gabriel and part of Hacienda Heights. There are 78,097 voters registered in the district.
Both Rated 'Qualified'
Both candidates received a "qualified" rating from the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. in its controversial assessments of candidates in Municipal and Superior Court elections. Other possible ratings are the higher "well qualified" and the lower "not qualified." The Bar Assn. says it has based its conclusions on professional ability, experience, competence, integrity and temperament.
Under the association's rankings, candidates deemed merely "qualified" have been judged to have the ability to perform judicial functions satisfactorily, whereas those rated as "well qualified" are said to be able to perform with a high degree of skill and effectiveness.
"I'm amazed that Judge Casas, who has been there for three years or more, got only a qualified rating," said Van Dusen. While he said his own rating as qualified "was good," Van Dusen, who would not give his age, said that Casas' rating was "a slap in the face."
Casas said that of the 29 judicial candidates in the county, only six were called well qualified, and that he was pleased to be called qualified. Casas said he was not told why he received the ranking he did.
Both Are Republicans
Both candidates are Republicans, both received their law degrees from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles and both support capital punishment. Van Dusen, who holds a master's degree in public administration from USC and is a former deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County, is in private practice with an El Monte firm. He said he opposes the reconfirmation of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird. Casas said he is not taking a stand on Bird. "Let Rose Bird run her campaign and I'll run my race."
Van Dusen said an example of Casas' leniency toward drug offenders was a case involving a man who had served 60 days in jail for being under the influence of PCP. While on probation after that 60-day sentence, he was charged with two counts of being under the influence of PCP, two counts of being in possession of PCP and one count of falsely representing himself to a policeman.
Casas sentenced the man to 30 days in jail for the five violations, less than the original 60-day sentence for the one count of being under the influence, Van Dusen said.
Another case cited by Van Dusen involved a man charged with petty theft who had previous convictions for that crime. Although Rio Hondo Municipal Court Commissioner William Jacobson had recommended that the man be sentenced to 270 days in jail, Casas sentenced him to 60 days, Van Dusen said.
Could Not Remember
Casas said he could not remember either case and that even if he could. But surmising about the petty theft case, he said "Each judge has to look at a case and cite it fairly and I'm sure when that case came up, the sentence I gave was appropriate.
"I've judged 8,000 cases and he picks out two to support his contention," said Casas. "A tactic of a person running against a judge is to pick out one or two cases that support his contention."
Critical of the fact that Casas lives outside the district, in Montebello, Van Dusen said, "A person who comes here and at the end of the day leaves, doesn't really do much for the community," Van Dusen's El Monte home is in the district.