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Elected Judges Are a Rare Breed Indeed

ON THE LAW

Fewer than 10% of all judgeships in California were filled in contested elections in 1996, 1998 and 2000, according to a Judicial Council study.

February 22, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When David M. Mintz wanted to become a judge, he didn't wait for the governor to call him. And he didn't feel he had the political clout for an appointment.

So the veteran prosecutor ran for an open seat, beating out five other candidates for the post.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court judge is among a small group of lawyers who become state trial judges by running for open seats or challenging incumbents.

Fewer than 10% of all judgeships in California were filled in contested elections in 1996, 1998 and 2000, according to a 2001 Judicial Council study. Fewer than half of those involved incumbents.

It's what Robert M. Stern of the California Commission on Campaign Financing calls "the myth of elected judges."

On the March 5 ballot, just two of 142 Los Angeles County Superior Court judges up for reelection face challenges. The others are unopposed, so their names will not even be placed before voters.

There are also five open seats, with 17 attorneys vying to fill them.

Most Judges Never Face Election Test

In Orange County, 11 candidates are vying to replace four retiring judges. The name of Judge Ronald C. Kline, who is charged with child molestation and possessing child pornography, also will be on the ballot due to an unusual write-in campaign effort. Under state law, write-in challengers who collect enough signatures can force an otherwise unopposed judge's name to be placed on the ballot.

Most state judges are appointed by the governor when judges retire or die during their six-year terms. As a result, most never face an election race.

The governor's staff vets candidates, as does the state Bar Assn. But other factors enter into the equation, including the political philosophy and experience of the candidate.

Former Gov. George Deukmejian, for example, appointed mostly deputy district attorneys. During his tenure, some lawyers without prosecutorial experience believed they were more likely to be elected than appointed to the bench.

John D. Harris decided in 1984 that the only way he would become a judge in Los Angeles County was by election. He won an open seat and began informally advising others on campaigning.

Judicial Races Take Back Seat

"It's a difficult, uphill, arduous and frustrating path," Harris warned.

On election day, judicial races are traditionally overshadowed by big-budget contests. Elections for judge appear dull to almost anyone outside the legal community and receive scant media coverage, partly because the candidates are ethically barred from discussing most hot-button issues.

Instead, they focus on their often-similar career accomplishments.

"The sole message [is] that you are the best-qualified candidate," Mintz said.

That can frustrate voters who are being asked to make decisions based on little more than resumes.

"We can't talk about cases," Harris said. "We can't promise what we will do if we have a death-penalty or abortion-rights case."

Engaging voters became more difficult and costly this year under state trial court unification.

Gone are municipal court districts, like those that existed in Beverly Hills and Inglewood, where judicial candidates could walk precincts to meet voters.

Instead, for the first time, all judicial elections will be countywide, a daunting prospect for Los Angeles County's 400-plus judges.

How do you communicate with 4.2 million voters? "It's next to impossible," said Joe Cerrell, a campaign consultant who has represented 300 judicial candidates since 1978.

Cerrell said he charges $25,000 to run a judicial campaign--some of which cost more than $100,000 in total--and has watched over the years as the number of races has dwindled.

The winning strategy, however, has not changed much. Mintz hired a consultant and raised thousands of dollars from lawyers and judges to finance his successful 2000 campaign.

Mintz used the funds to pay for a statement in the official ballot booklet and also got his name on as many slate mailers as he could afford.

This year, a ballot statement in the primary will cost an estimated $26,000, election officials said.

It's twice as much to have it printed in both English and Spanish.

Cerrell said he did not buy a ballot statement for a client in the current Los Angeles County election, Judge Robert Simpson, because opponent Kenneth E. Wright did not buy one.

He said he will use the money instead to put Simpson's name on more slate mailers.

Ballot Designation Can Spell Trouble

Another important campaign decision is how one's name appears on the ballot.

Cerrell and others blame Judge Roberta Ralph's 1988 defeat on her poor choice of a ballot designation. She listed herself as "incumbent" on the ballot and lost.

She should have used the word "judge," Cerrell said, noting that it is a simpler and clear designation that has long offered a proven advantage at the polls.

That's one reason so few judges face serious challenges.

Most lawyers also do not want to risk alienating judges by threatening the livelihood of one of their own.

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