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JUDICIAL : Municipal Court Race Is Too Close to Declare Victor : Prosecutor Caryl Lee leads incumbent Dan C. Dutcher by 635 votes after bitter campaign. Absentee ballots could turn tide.


A municipal judge refused to concede victory to a county prosecutor Wednesday in a bitter judicial race that both sides agreed was too close to call until the absentee ballots are counted.

Incumbent Municipal Judge Dan C. Dutcher in Westminster trailed Deputy Dist. Atty. Caryl Lee by 635 votes--or 0.5%--out of more than 131,000.

Dutcher said another 7,000 to 9,000 absentee ballot votes still must be counted and could put him over the top. The count is expected to be finished by next Wednesday.

"We have a ray of hope," Dutcher said. "If we're not sanguine, we're at least optimistic."

Lee predicted her margin will hold, but acknowledged that the race, the only contested judicial election in Orange County, was not over.

"I'm not going around getting fitted for robes or anything," Lee said Wednesday.

The registrar of voter's office will officially certify results Nov. 29, said assistant registrar of voters Rosalyn Lever.

Dutcher, who ran with the support of fellow Orange County judges, said that if he loses the seat he has held in Westminster for the past 12 years it will be because Lee lied about his record during the campaign.

Lee has been a deputy district attorney for five years and previously was in private practice as a civil attorney. She has accused Dutcher of being soft on crime, criticizing the judge's handling of a vehicular manslaughter case last year where a 13-year-old boy was killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver.

A brochure Lee circulated in June claimed that Dutcher sentenced the driver to one year of actual jail time, even though Dutcher sentenced him to two years in prison.

Lee acknowledged Wednesday that Dutcher did order a two-year prison sentence but said the brochure was not inaccurate because the driver will actually serve about 14 months behind bars because of credit for good behavior. He is due to be released this week, she said.

When a judge sentences a criminal, Lee argued, the judge should take into account credit for time served that can reduce a criminal's actual time behind bars.

Dutcher has sued Lee for libel because of the brochure, and on Wednesday said that he plans to pursue the lawsuit however the race turns out.

The nastiness of the contest was difficult to endure at times, said Lee, who added that she hopes other judges will treat her professionally if she wins.

Of 300 to 400 judicial elections in the last 16 years, only three incumbent judges have been defeated, said Presiding Orange County Superior Court Judge James L. Smith.

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