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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Politics creeps into judge races

As more candidates raise funds for slate ads, observers fear loss of objectivity on bench.

October 25, 2006|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Judicial contests in Los Angeles County are usually quiet affairs.

Not this year.

First came June's election, when a bagel shop owner with limited legal experience ousted a highly regarded sitting judge, prompting near hysteria from some judicial officers who complained that the election's outcome had sent them into "despair."

Now, a lawyer in his 70s is alleging age discrimination by the county bar association, which rates judicial candidates and called him "not qualified."

Observers say the nonpartisan contests in California are still mild compared with the heated, partisan battles familiar to voters in Texas and other states.

Not one of the eight candidates running for four seats on the bench in Los Angeles Superior Court on Nov. 7 is a household name or has garnered much attention outside the legal media -- although one, Hayden Zacky, a gang prosecutor, comes from a family with ties to the well-known brand of chicken. Only George C. Montgomery was rated not qualified; the others were rated as qualified or well-qualified by the county bar association.

But in a year when ballot measures in several states would limit judicial authority, some say they fear that events of the last six months are a sign that judicial races in L.A. County and across the state are becoming more political.

"There are storm clouds on the horizon," said the chief justice of California's Supreme Court, Ron George, who is concerned about the issue nationally. He said the stakes are high: "If the judiciary becomes politicized, then the rule of law is in jeopardy."

The vast majority of California's 1,500 Superior Court judges, including the 427 in L.A. County, are appointed by the governor. Once on the bench, they face retention elections every six years. Each balloting typically features several races to fill open seats that occur when a judge retires or resigns too close to the end of his or her term to allow the governor time to name a replacement. Legal experts say that some of the diversity on the bench can be attributed to elections.

Even though candidates seek a particular seat, designated on the ballot by a number, all judicial posts are countywide. Once elected, judges can be assigned to any courthouse based on their desires and experience.

Critics have long bemoaned the fact that most voters have no clue who the candidates are and resort to choices that are either random or based on limited information available in the voting booth, such as a prospective judge's name or occupation.

Increasingly, prospective candidates are also relying on slate mailers, brightly colored cards sent to voters' homes that candidates pay to be included on -- but that look like quasi-official endorsements.

It used to be that it was rare to see a sitting judge challenged and almost unheard of for one to be defeated.

But in June, riding a wave of slate mailers, Lynn Diane Olson unseated Judge Dzintra Janavs.

Olson, who spent more than $70,000 to be listed on slates, was rated as not qualified by the county bar association. She had once given up the practice of law to run a South Bay bagel shop famous for its gingersnaps. Janavs is a 20-year veteran of the bench with a reputation for keen intelligence as well as for a sharp courtroom manner.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger swiftly reappointed Janavs to an open seat, and she remains in her downtown civil courtroom, which is piled high with boxes of legal briefs.

But for judicial candidates, the lesson was clear: "Slate mailers are necessary in judicial campaigns ... you can't win without" them, said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Stuart, who is running for a judge seat.

Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez predicted Olson's win would prompt many others to challenge sitting judges next year, and he worried that such contests could "politicize the bench." Waging a campaign in vast, populous L.A. County requires candidates to raise enough money to pay for advertising and slate mailers -- and how are judges supposed to do that and keep from being beholden to campaign contributors once they reach the bench, he and others noted.

"It raises a lot of ethical questions that are not there for the average person running for election," Assistant Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger said.

No sitting judge is being challenged in this election cycle. Eight candidates -- two top vote-getters from each of four contests in the June primary -- are vying for four open seats.

But one race was heated enough to spur a challenge to another stalwart of the judicial election process: the county bar association and its rating system for candidates.

George Montgomery, who is 74, said that at his interview, "the first question when I walked into the room, was 'Mr. Montgomery, at your age ... why do you want to be a judge?' "

"I was deeply offended," he said.

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