A heated and often bitter campaign for judge of the Malibu Municipal Court heads a slate of Westside Municipal Court races on the June 7 primary ballot.
In Los Angeles County, only eight of the 91 races for Municipal Court judge feature challenges to incumbents. Four of those are on the Westside.
The Malibu race pits Judge Lawrence J. Mira against challenger Raymond David, an attorney who has attacked Mira's administration of the court and criticized his firing of a longtime court commissioner last year.
Mira, in turn, has charged David with running a "deceptive and grimy" campaign. Earlier this year, Mira sought a court order to force David to change his ballot designation from arbitration judge to arbitrator because David has not served as a judge. Still, Mira said, David continues to hand out cards in his district that show the challenger pictured in a judicial robe.
"He (David) has been very willing to distort the facts," said Mira, 45, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1986. "His campaign has been very misleading. I believe it's fair to say that he has a very cavalier attitude about following the law."
David said the ballot-designation tussle was a matter of semantics and denied that his campaign has been deceptive. He called Mira's handling of the Malibu court "unacceptable," contending that a backlog of civil cases and limited working hours in the Calabasas courthouse have placed an undue hardship on San Fernando Valley residents and attorneys in the judicial district, which includes Topanga, Agoura, Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Hidden Hills, Calabasas and part of Chatsworth.
"You can't get justice in a clogged courthouse," said David, 55, who has practiced as an attorney for 26 years. "Either you can manage it or you can't. It's not a case of needing more judges, but administering it better."
The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. recently ranked Mira "well qualified." David was ranked "not qualified," which he said was an indication of the bar's resentment over his running against an incumbent judge. Mira said the ranking reflected David's lack of credentials. The bar association bases its rankings on extensive analysis and interviews with the candidates in which a panel of attorneys assesses integrity, judgment, intellectual capacity, fairness, experience, knowledge of the law, general reputation in the community and judicial temperament.
Municipal judges earn $77,409 annually and handle misdemeanor trials, preliminary hearings in felony cases, arraignments for misdemeanor and felony arrests, and civil and small claims cases. They are elected to six-year terms.
Mira, a criminal-law specialist who served nine years as a deputy district attorney and nine years in private practice, is being endorsed by retired Malibu Municipal Judge John Merrick, who headed the court for 22 years. David, a member of the American Arbitration Assn.'s national panel of arbitrators, has been endorsed by several attorney groups in the San Fernando Valley.
One of the key issues in the campaign focuses on Mira's firing of Commissioner Richard L. Brand, a 13-year veteran of the court and a longtime friend of David's, and replacing him with former Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert H. McIntosh.
David said Brand's dismissal was "a waste of judicial talent." Mira, noting that the court commissioner serves at the behest of the judge, said Brand was dismissed "after it got to a point where he wasn't pulling in the same direction as I was. It was hurting the whole court system."
Brand is actively campaigning for David, but said he had no intention of returning as court commissioner if David wins the election.
The challenger has spent the past six months hammering away at Mira's limited use of the Calabasas courthouse, which is used primarily for small claims and traffic cases. Criminal cases involving jailed defendants have been transferred to the Malibu court, which David contends creates a great burden on attorneys in the San Fernando Valley who must travel all the way out to the coastal community for often brief appearances. Mira said the Calabasas facility is used on a limited basis because of inadequate security.
However, if elected, David said he would assign a commissioner full-time to Calabasas to handle cases and allow attorneys to file court documents there.
Mira said the way he would handle the workload is by enforcing mandatory arbitration in civil cases, to free himself and Commissioner McIntosh for other matters.
"This is case where some guy is making a lot of allegations because it's the only tactic he can use," Mira said. "He's running a negative campaign because he couldn't win by running on his qualifications."
The Malibu court battle is by far the most rancorous of the Westside judicial races, but livelier-than-usual campaigns are being waged in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Culver City.