Not since Rose Bird has a sitting judge aroused such ire.
Joyce A. Karlin, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge with just nine months on the bench, is in the final stretch of the most closely watched local judicial election since former California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two associate justices were dumped in 1986. Whereas the lightning rod issue for Bird was the death penalty, for Karlin it is her controversial decision to grant a Korean-born grocer probation in the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins.
That decision landed Karlin at the center of protests, made her the target of a recall effort and prompted her transfer from criminal courts to Juvenile Dependency Court. Already, it has cost her her privacy and, in some quarters, her professional reputation.
And when voters go to the polls on Tuesday, it may cost her her job.
"It saddens me," she acknowledged in a recent interview, "to think that there's a possibility that I won't be doing the work that I'm doing right now. . . . I don't want to be overly confident because I've never been in any sort of election so I don't have a clue how you judge these things."
The race for Superior Court Office No. 17--Karlin's seat--is one of 82 Superior Court elections being held in Los Angeles County this year. In a measure of the strong feelings unleashed by her ruling, Karlin's is the only race that is contested.
The campaign has been imbued with racial tensions and charges that Karlin, who is white, devalued the life of the black teen-ager killed by grocer Soon Ja Du.
The election pits Karlin against three challengers: Deputy Atty. Gen. Bob Henry, a black Harvard law graduate who has spent his entire career in the attorney general's office; Thomasina Reed, a black attorney who specializes in family law and also serves on the Inglewood school board; and Donald Barnett, a white personal-injury lawyer from Century City.
Picking a front-runner among the challengers is almost impossible. Each carries endorsements from different factions of the black community--including Barnett. In a surprising development, he has won the support of a committee of Harlins' friends and family members, who say that as a well-financed white male he has the best shot of winning.
The other candidates' efforts to oust Karlin, coupled with the recall campaign against her, have generated angst in the legal community, where some believe that voting Karlin out of office will threaten the independence of all judges who handle politically sensitive cases. Judicial independence is a key Karlin campaign theme.
Moreover, political analysts say the Los Angeles riots--in which the name of Latasha Harlins was invoked by angry protesters almost as frequently as that of Rodney G. King--will inevitably put a new spin on Tuesday's vote.
In the black community, outrage is now more intense than ever over the outcome of the Du case, in which the grocer shot the teen-ager in the back of the head after the two struggled over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.
"For people that are involved in the African-American community and are looking for ways of channeling the rage that is out there, (Karlin) is certainly a symbol," said Cynthia McClain-Hill, a lawyer who publishes a political newsletter. "People who feel oppressed and powerless can find power at the ballot box by removing her from office."
Yet political analysts say that while black opposition to Karlin has been vocal, she may draw quiet support from others in ethnically diverse Los Angeles County.
It is possible that Karlin will win support from those who accepted grocer Du's contention that the shooting was accidental and that she was in fear of her life when it occurred. Women may be inclined to back her. And she may be viewed sympathetically by Asian-Americans who appreciate the mercy she showed to Du.
"We live in very troubled times," said political consultant Mervin Field, who directs The California Poll. "The public is now divided. . . . The Los Angeles riots, while they have put a lot of people in conflict, they have renewed a law-and-order feeling. . . . Given all the pros and cons, I really don't know how it is going to come out."
In addition, Karlin gained credibility when an appeals court upheld her decision in the Du case.
Another important factor will be the ratings given to the candidates by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s Judicial Evaluation Committee. The Bar did not give Karlin the "well qualified" rating that it often bestows upon judicial incumbents, instead finding her simply "qualified" to do the job.
However, another Bar group has angered Karlin's critics with its plan to present the judge with a resolution opposing the recall campaign against her. At its annual awards dinner Thursday night, the Bar's Criminal Justice Section--a group composed of defense lawyers and prosecutors--will also name Du's defense lawyer, Charles E. Lloyd, "trial lawyer of the year."