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Who should judge?

ENDORSEMENTS 2008: Voters will decide 17 seats on the Los Angeles Superior Court.

April 21, 2008

The Los Angeles Superior Court is the nation's largest trial court, with 431 authorized judge positions. The judges' power is immense. Among other things, they can dissolve a marriage, break up a family, impose the death penalty, appoint conservators and decide whether a drug user ought to go to prison or deserves a break. But few people outside the legal profession ever face judges in the courtroom, and few voters know a great deal about who they are.

Most judges are appointed by the governor, serve out their six-year terms and are then deemed reelected if no challengers file to run against them. That's the way it was this year for 138 Los Angeles Superior Court judges up for reelection -- about a third of the bench. But one, Ralph W. Dau, was challenged and will be on the June 3 ballot along with his opponent. Six other sitting judges will appear on the ballot without opponents, because they have been targeted in a write-in campaign.

Ten other seats are open because the incumbents retired and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't have enough time to appoint successors, or otherwise decided to leave the decision to voters. That means 17 judicial seats are to be decided by the electorate. Those who win a majority on June 3 will be seated later this year. In those races in which no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, runoffs will be held in November.The Times makes endorsements after examining each candidate, relying not just on interviews but also on reporting. We speak with lawyers who have faced off against or appeared before the candidates in court; we talk with colleagues and former clients; for those candidates whose work takes them to the courtroom, we often observe them in action. We make our recommendation based on which contender in each race we believe has the best experience, knowledge, integrity, temperament and demeanor to serve as a judge.

The Times makes the following endorsements for Superior Court judge:

Offices No. 3, 35, 41, 55, 101 and 102: We take these together because all six come to the ballot for the same reason. Ronald C. Tan, a Carson minister, is trying to recruit lawyers to unseat these judges. Tan alleges that he is concerned about appellate rulings in religious-rights cases on subjects such as abortion, same-sex marriage and evolution, but he produces no evidence that these judges are part of that concern. Instead, he has targeted six jurists, all of them Latino men. All deserve to be retained against this pointless campaign.

The Times endorses: Daniel P. Ramirez for Office No. 3; Juan Carlos Dominguez for Office No. 35; Michael Villalobos for Office No. 41; Hector M. Guzman for Office No. 55; Daniel S. Lopez for Office No. 101; and Jose Sandoval for Office No. 102.

Office No. 4: Ralph W. Dau. Dau is criticized as autocratic and disrespectful by more than a few lawyers who appear before him. Challenger Sydnee R. Singer has every right to try unseating a judge if she believes he is serving the public poorly. But Dau is intelligent and experienced, and his performance meets an acceptable standard, even if his courtroom is a less pleasant place than it could be. He ought to be retained.

Office No. 69: Serena R. Murillo is the better of two candidates in this race. Her straightforward style has earned her respect from criminal defense lawyers she faces in court as a prosecutor, as well as from her own colleagues and supervisors. She should make an outstanding judge.

Office No. 72: Hilleri Grossman Merritt, a deputy district attorney, has the narrow edge in this race, earning high marks from colleagues, defense lawyers and judges for fairness and integrity. We endorse her without hesitation but note that one of her opponents, fellow prosecutor Marc Alain Chomel, would also serve with distinction.

Office No. 82: Cynthia Loo. We endorse Loo, a Superior Court referee who presides over juvenile delinquency cases, but with some reservations. She appears to possess little of the serene courtroom demeanor usually associated with a trial judge. Yet she earns high marks from attorneys on all sides for her handling of juvenile cases, which are closed to the public. Loo is an asset to juvenile court, an assignment that ought to be highly sought but seldom is. She is running against two prosecutors, including one -- Thomas Rubinson -- who has risen high in the district attorney's office and is well-regarded by colleagues. But Rubinson lacks the respect that many defense lawyers accord his colleagues. Loo is, narrowly, the better choice.

Office No. 84: Pat Connolly, a deputy district attorney, is the best of four candidates in this race. He is a competent prosecutor and should make a competent judge. The Times has twice before endorsed Deputy Atty. Gen. Bob Henry, and he also would be a capable jurist, but Connolly is the better choice.

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