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California voters often don't know much about judicial candidates

Judges hold considerable sway over the lives of those in their courtrooms. But the average voter either has no clue how to assess judicial candidates or spends little time doing so.

June 04, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times

For a sampling of what critics say are the inherent flaws in electing judges, look no further than the duel for Office No. 38 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The incumbent is sometimes referred to derisively as the "bagel lady," a nod to the bakery she and her husband ran when she ousted a sitting judge in 2006.

Her opponent has vied unsuccessfully for a trial court spot — three times — and was involved years ago in an odd dust-up over his TV appearance on the "Love Connection."

When a Los Angeles County Bar Assn. committee sized up the race, it came to the same conclusion about both candidates: "not qualified."

Yet one candidate will snag a judicial seat during Tuesday's election, despite most voters knowing little about their choices beyond their names (Lynn Diane Olson, Douglas W. Weitzman) and listed occupations (judge of the Superior Court, consumer rights attorney).

"How many people know anything else about the judicial candidates?" said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. "How do you know they're doing a good job?"

Most of California's roughly 1,600 Superior Court judges are first appointed by the governor. Those judges appear on the ballot only if they are challenged for a new term. Other judicial elections take place if a judge retires or resigns very close to an election. (Slots on state appeals courts and the Supreme Court are filled solely by appointment.)

Trial judges earn a base salary of $178,789 and serve for six years.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles County voters will weigh in on six judicial races, half of which involve sitting jurists. Strict ethics rules limit what the candidates can say, mostly stripping the races of the sort of controversy that makes voters take notice.

"Judicial races done right should be clean," said San Diego Superior Court Judge David M. Rubin, who's president of the California Judges Assn. "You don't want something that will sully the reputation of the bench."

Judges hold considerable sway over the lives of those who end up in their courtrooms, whether for a divorce, an eviction, a traffic ticket — or worse. But the average voter either has no clue how to assess judicial candidates or spends little time doing so.

"Why the system elects judges, period, I don't know," said David Gould, a consultant who's involved in several local judicial campaigns, including Olson's.

In the Olson-Weitzman race, even the typical information sources — bar association ratings and newspaper editorials — might not help voters much. When the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a legal newspaper, endorsed Olson, it did so with a sigh.

"Olson is unworthy of trust," the paper said. "She is unworthy of government office. We would be delighted to see her replaced by an able and ethical challenger." But Weitzman, the paper said, is "incapable of functioning as a judicial officer."

In judicial circles, people still grumble about how Olson first won office: by reactivating her state bar membership at the last minute and then blitzing voters with mailers. Critics said she targeted her opponent, Dzintra Janavs, because of the respected jurist's tongue-twister of a name, an accusation Olson has denied.

The purported strategy was so successful — Olson won by nearly 8 percentage points — that it may have inspired a copycat this year. Supporters of well-regarded Judge Sanjay T. Kumar claim that opponent Kim Smith targeted the jurist because of his foreign-sounding name. Smith, an assistant city attorney in Hawthorne whom the bar association deemed "not qualified," did not respond to calls seeking comment.

This time around, Olson's reelection bid has been relatively modest. She reported about $11,000 in contributions this year through May 19, and nearly half of it was money she lent to herself. But Weitzman has so little money that he hasn't filed a campaign finance report.

Weitzman also recently took a drubbing in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, which reported that he was barred from serving as a temporary judge at a branch court in the 1990s. The reason was particularly memorable. In what Weitzman said was a mix-up, he was billed as a full-fledged judge on the Chuck Woolery dating show "Love Connection."

And though Weitzman considers Olson vulnerable because of her "bagel lady" notoriety, she has won over at least some members of the bench. Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon was among the jurists who endorsed her.

Olson waved off the bar association snub, saying she was rated "not qualified" because she didn't meet with the group's evaluation committee. (The bar association says that's not the case.)

After the 2006 election, Olson said, she threw herself into her new role and was rewarded with assignments of increasing complexity. She now handles what are known as unlimited civil cases, in which potential damages are more than $25,000.

Olson said voters should keep her on the bench because she's a well-prepared, respectful jurist. But, well aware of the quirkiness of judicial races, she also plans to rely on mailers again.

"I'm spending what I need to spend to get my name out to voters," she said. "It can be hard to get their attention."

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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