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JUDICIAL RACES : Candidates for 3 Seats Wage Costly Contests

Qualifications, endorsements are touted in two Municipal Court skirmishes and a Superior Court race.

November 03, 1996|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

There are just three judicial races on the Los Angeles County ballot, but they are all hotly contested.

If nothing else, the races are indicative of how expensive it has become to run for a judgeship. For example, Teresa Sanchez-Gordon, a federal public defender scrapping it out with Municipal Court Commissioner Antonio Luna for a Municipal Court judgeship in East Los Angeles, has spent upward of $200,000. Several other candidates have spent more than $100,000.

In the only Superior Court battle, veteran downtown Municipal Judge Karl W. Jaeger hopes to overcome the top vote-getter in the primary, Citrus Municipal Judge Patrick B. Murphy.

That race is a face-off between a veteran jurist, Jaeger, and a self-proclaimed outsider, Murphy, who contends that the legal system is in deep trouble.

Jaeger bills himself as more experienced and better qualified. He was rated "well qualified" by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., while Murphy was rated "not qualified" by the association's 48-member evaluation committee.

Jaeger, 60, was appointed to the bench in 1987 and served as presiding judge of the Municipal Court in 1991. He has been endorsed by 136 of his judicial colleagues. A graduate of USC and Southwestern University Law School, Jaeger was a civil lawyer for 20 years before becoming a judge.

Murphy, 41, has an unusual background for a lawyer--something he touts as a strength. He worked as a nurse for nine years before graduating from Southwestern University Law School. After practicing for several years and teaching law part time, he stunned the San Gabriel Valley bar association when he upset presiding Citrus Municipal Judge Abe Khan.

In winning, Murphy overcame a "not qualified" rating by the county bar association, the same assessment that was made this year. The association, without elaboration, said it felt "he lacks the judgment needed to perform the functions of a Superior Court judge."

Murphy scoffs at that assessment. He says the rating process was controlled by a small clique of attorneys who have no real knowledge of how he performs his job and who never have come to his courtroom.

There are some significant similarities between Jaeger and Murphy. Each said he supports the three-strikes law and favors an increase in victims' rights in the courtroom. They both have garnered some significant law enforcement support. Jaeger is backed by Sheriff Sherman Block, while Murphy has the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Assn.

Murphy stresses that he "imposes tough sentences on gang members and graffiti vandals." But he also has become the first judge in the nation to initiate a diversion program called Criminon, in lieu of or in addition to incarcerating misdemeanor offenders. The program is based on "The Way to Happiness," a "nonreligious moral code" of 21 precepts written by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Murphy, who said he is not a Scientologist, said the program is aimed at getting criminals to critically examine their behavior and reform and that it has turned lives around.

In the hotly contested East Los Angeles race, both Sanchez-Gordon and Luna contend that they are "the candidate of the community." Sanchez-Gordon grew up near the Municipal Court building there and went to local Catholic schools before attending Immaculate Heart College and the People's College of Law. In addition to her work as a public defender, she has been active in the immigrants' rights movement.

A graduate of UCLA Law School and a former public defender, Luna, 56, stresses his six years as a Municipal Court commissioner, his charitable work in the community and the backing of several law enforcement groups.

Sanchez-Gordon, 45, has the backing of a bevy of elected officials, ranging from Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) to Montebello school board member Thomas Calderon. In touting her candidacy, Sanchez-Gordon's supporters stress that she was rated "qualified" by the bar association, while Luna was rated "not qualified."

The evaluation stated that Luna "lacks the necessary judgment" to be a judge but did not explain why. The public record provides some indications of what may have led to this evaluation.

In 1991, the State Bar of California gave Luna a private reproval for administering sentences to his own clients when he served as judge pro tem in Alhambra Traffic Court. In 1986, he agreed to pay $25,952 after the district attorney's office filed a civil complaint against him for allegedly overbilling the county while representing indigent defendants as a contract lawyer.

Moreover, in August, a Superior Court judge ordered Luna to change his ballot statement after concluding that it violated state law by personally attacking Sanchez-Gordon.

Qualifications are also at issue in the Citrus Municipal Court race, in which Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Falls hopes to stave off a stiff challenge from private practitioner Nida Brinkis Alex.

Falls, a graduate of Western State University Law School, was rated "well qualified" by the bar, while Alex, a graduate of Southwestern University Law School, was deemed "unqualified." The committee said, "She lacks the necessary experience with significant legal matters."

Although most of her experience has been in the civil arena, Alex, 57, strongly advocates improving victims' rights during criminal trials. Falls, 36, a veteran prosecutor who helped write the Violent Sexual Predator Law, is also a vigorous champion of victims' rights. The nine-year deputy district attorney says all of his 20-plus jury murder trials have led to convictions.

Alex has outspent Falls more than 3 to 1--$122,000 to $33,000.

Times correspondent Mayrav Saar contributed to this article.

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