The June 8 primary ballot includes 21 candidates competing for six positions on the Los Angeles County Superior Court. That's a fraction of the court's more than 400 judges, the vast majority of whom are appointed by the governor. It's too small a number for the electorate to be able to correct any perceived political, gender or racial imbalances on the court, or to try tinkering with the proportion of prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers or civil practitioners who come to the bench. This allows voters to focus on one basic question: Which candidate in each race would make the best judge?
But voters have little information on which to base their choices. Candidates vie for attention by buying spots on the slate mailers generally sent out in the final weeks of campaign season, or by being creative on the three-word designations that follow each candidate's name on the ballot. A deputy district attorney, for example, might figure he'd do better with a title like "gang homicide prosecutor." More than a few candidates have tried to game the system by moonlighting for a semester or two at a community law school and then designating themselves "attorney/law professor" on the ballot.
The Times editorial board examines the candidates and talks with lawyers who have worked with and against them in court. Where possible, we watch them in action in the courtroom. We meet with each of them to assess their knowledge, competence, integrity, temperament and demeanor. We endorse the candidates we believe to be the best of those running for each seat.
We take these elections seriously. The Los Angeles court system may be large enough that the occasional unqualified jurist sent to the bench by either the governor or voters can be assigned to a less important courtroom where the consequences of his or her lack of ability will be less serious and will affect fewer people. But even in out-of-the-way places, incompetent judges undermine justice for the people who appear before them. And now, with the Superior Court laying off hundreds of courtroom clerks and other support staff, and projecting further layoffs in the near future because of diminished funding from Sacramento, the court can ill afford middling judges.
Three of the six races are for open seats, created because a sitting judge vacated the position, or announced plans to do so, during a window of time in which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could not or did not make an appointment. The other three races feature sitting judges who have been challenged. Candidates must win a majority of the vote to avoid a November runoff.
The Times makes the following endorsements for Superior Court judge:
Office No. 28: Randy Hammock. Eight candidates filed to run for this seat, and although several might make passable judges, only two — Hammock and Mark K. Ameli — excel. Ameli is an accomplished civil litigator and would be a credit to the bench. But The Times opts for Hammock, a lawyer who also has an excellent civil litigation track record but set aside his practice to serve as a referee — the equivalent of a judge for most purposes — presiding over foster care, adoption and other matters in the Dependency Court. Hammock says he would like to keep the same assignment if elected, and although that won't be solely his decision to make, the Superior Court is in need of top-flight dependency judges.
The other candidates are Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Chris Garcia, Deputy Public Defender C. Edward Mack, sole practitioner Elizabeth Moreno, Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward J. Nison, mediator Kendall C. "Ken" Reed and Hawthorne Assistant City Atty. Kim Smith. Nison is making his third run, and although he might make a good judge, he does not stack up against Hammock or Ameli.
Office No. 35: Soussan (Suzanne) Bruguera. This decision is easy. Bruguera, a former deputy attorney general, is an experienced and well-regarded judge who has served on the Los Angeles County Superior Court for a decade and on another court for a decade before that. She is being challenged by Douglas W. Weitzman, a lawyer and realtor who is making his third run for the bench. This page was unimpressed with Weitzman in his earlier attempts, and we've seen little growth in the intervening years. Now, instead of vying for an open seat, he's seeking to unseat a worthy judge — yet he fails to articulate any good reason that she should be removed from the court. This is particularly troubling because of the penchant of voters (who have little other information to go on) to reject judges with foreign-sounding names. That phenomenon almost certainly came into play in the 2006 defeat of able judge Dzintra Janavs. We urge voters to do themselves a double service: Retain the well-qualified Bruguera and keep the unqualified Weitzman off the bench.