Monday, Feb. 28, 2000
Alhambra Municipal Court
Long-Serving Jurist Challenged Amid Complaints Over His Demeanor
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
More often than not, incumbent judges who already have a couple of terms under their belts sail through election season without opposition. No campaigns, no ballot statements, no fundraising, no worries.
So when a 19-year veteran of the bench like Alhambra Municipal Court (now Los Angeles Superior Court) Judge John Martinez draws two challengers, it's natural to assume that something is going on. Did the judge rule against an influential party who now wants revenge? Have the prosecutors decided he's too easy on accused criminals? Does the defense bar find him too tough a sentencer?
The particular rap often heard against Martinez at the time Maria Vargas-Rodriguez and Llewellyn Chin filed to run against him last fall was that he was simply a difficult guy to get along with.
So difficult, the story went, that the entire Alhambra courthouse was split into opposing camps and clouded by an air of mutual hostility.
To lend credence to the rumors, Judge Michael A. Kanner and Commissioner Michael J. Duffy—half of the tiny court's bench—endorsed Vargas-Rodriguez in her bid to unseat Martinez. In fact, Vargas-Rodriguez said, they recruited her.
Refraining from specific broadsides against Martinez, the two jurists only hint at their beefs with their colleague in the course of praising the opponent.
Kanner, for example, calls Vargas-Rodriguez the "clear choice."
"I've known this lady for about 16 years to assess...her legal abilities and her humanitarianism...and compare that with the incumbent," Kanner says. "She's just the clear choice. There has never been a woman...on this bench. [It] is incredibly invaluable to have the input of a lady in setting policy for this district."
Duffy, too, uses words like "humanitarian" to describe Vargas-Rodriguez—and to distinguish her from Martinez.
Judge Carlos Uranga, the fourth member of the permanent Alhambra team, did not return calls for comment. People familiar with the courthouse say Uranga mediates between Martinez and the other two.
But try to pin down just what it is that upsets people about Martinez and his critics get very sketchy in their details. Numerous calls to deputy public defenders assigned to Alhambra went unreturned. Prosecutors, too, were reluctant to speak on the record about Martinez.
"You have to understand," one attorney assigned to the Alhambra courthouse explains. "We have to appear in front of [Martinez] every day."
Another acknowledges that "there are factions that are supportive and factions that are disgruntled" when it comes to Martinez. "But there's no one real strong person that everyone would say is a premier lawyer who would be great for that position," the attorney continues.
A lawyer in private practice, who also didn't want his name used, says the worst thing he ever heard about Martinez is that Kanner doesn't like him.
"But he's always treated me very well," the defense lawyer says. "Oh, one time he almost cited me for contempt. But I won the case. Another time, he ordered me to bring in my client on a misdemeanor when it wasn't necessary. He does get carried away a little bit. But I don't let him do me that way."
It's not necessarily better to wind up in some other courtroom, the lawyer says.
"Kanner's a swell guy but a hard sentencer," he explains.
Others who frequent the Alhambra courthouse promise good stories will come from people who formerly worked in Martinez's courtroom, like bailiff Rachel Sandoval. But Sandoval, a deputy sheriff now assigned to lockup in another courthouse, only describes her eight years in Martinez's court as "pleasant."
There are a couple stories that go beyond assertions that Martinez is just a difficult person. Vargas-Rodriguez speaks of an incident—confirmed by one person directly involved who, again, would not consent to be named—in which a woman trying to get her drivers license renewed discovered to her surprise that she had an outstanding warrant for failing to pay a traffic ticket.
The woman, Vargas-Rodriguez says, left her 2-year-old with a babysitter and went to the courthouse to have the matter cleared up. She was directed to Martinez's courtroom.
The next thing she knew, the story goes, she was handcuffed and loaded on the Sheriff's Department bus to be jailed. She remained locked up downtown until 2 a.m., when her husband bailed her out for $15,000. She paid the ticket and the outstanding warrant was cleared.
It is the most egregious example of what Vargas-Rodriguez says is a typical complaint against Martinez—he is an unbending stickler for blanket rules, such as incarcerating everyone who appears on an outstanding warrant. No discussions, no leeway.
A deputy public defender, now assigned to another courthouse, says Martinez would routinely reject requests that defendants surrender for short incarcerations on a Saturday, so as not to miss a day of work.
"No, he made them come in on Friday, for no other reason than to exercise control or to be an ass," the deputy says. "He wouldn't allow sentences of consecutive weekends. Most of these defendants were Latino immigrants, but he had absolutely no tolerance for his countrymen trying to make it now."
No Rote Disposition
Martinez denies any rote disposition scheme beyond what is required by statute. People who come in on outstanding warrants more than a year old are taken to lockup until the end of the day, when they are returned to him to explain why they didn't appear when they were supposed to, he says.
"I handle everything on a case-by-case basis," he says. "My sentencing is not automatic and not standardized."
He rejects assertions that he is prone to retaliation against people who say negative things about him.
"That comment is I think really unfair," Martinez says. "I don't think they can point to an incident where I retaliated."
Martinez has his fans in the legal community, including longtime San Gabriel Valley practitioner Sal Coco. Coco calls Martinez fair and independent, but hints at a certain aloofness.
"He's a formal judge," Coco explains. "He's conservative, very law and order. Very fair—you get your day in court. What more can I expect from a judge? He keeps his distance, which I don't think improper."
Coco says he's "probably as close to him as anyone gets"—and notes that in the last 19 years, they've had lunch together once.
Martinez's own explanation for drawing two opponents comes down to impatience and boredom on their part.
City Council Election
Chin, the judge notes, was disappointed in a bid for the Alhambra City Council when, in 1992, he challenged an incumbent. The growing Asian population of the San Gabriel Valley is anxious to get Asians elected, he says.
"They look at the courthouses and they don't see Asian faces at all," Martinez says. "I feel they believe they have to start someplace. Mexican Americans were in that situation several years ago. That community went through a similar process."
Chin confirms that he has nothing against Martinez.
"When you run for office, that does not necessarily reflect anything bad on the [incumbent] candidate himself," Chin says.
As for Vargas-Rodriguez, Martinez says he believes she is just a person without enough to do.
"She has a solo practice, and she has a lot of time on her hands," Martinez says.
Martinez, 56, grew up in Long Beach, then went to the University of Oregon and the University of Pittsburgh for college. He returned to Southern California for law school, earning his J.D. from Loyola Law School in 1968.
After a four-year Army stint that took him to Korea—as part of the Judge Advocate General Corps—Martinez went to work at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice. He entered private practice in 1978, and was appointed to the Alhambra Municipal Court by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1981.
"My message," Martinez says, "is that I've been here over 18 years and I've done a good job. No scandals. I've been doing this job for a long time and I'm good at it."
Martinez has reported a war chest of $78,000—all from a loan to himself. It was not enough to scare off challengers, but he has in his corner judicial campaign maven Joe Cerrell, and expresses confidence in his re-election.
Time for Change
Vargas-Rodriguez, 51, says it's time for a change at the Alhambra courthouse, and while that assertion is subject to debate, there can be little doubt that she would be a change of pace on the bench there.
Cheerful and talkative, Vargas-Rodriguez greets strangers as if she's known them for years, calling them "sweetie" or "darling." Her manner has won her the allegiance of numerous parties who have appeared before her when she sits as a judge pro tem.
She produces letters from satisfied "customers," including some whom she decided against.
"The pro tem...was businesslike and courteous," one Margaret Gibson wrote to the court's presiding judge. "She took the time to listen and made quick and fair decisions."
"...I was very impressed by your no-nonsense approach on the bench," a Howard Rubin wrote to Vargas-Rodriguez. "I feel you would be an asset in any level of the judiciary."
But perhaps Vargas-Rodriguez's favorite letter is a recommendation for appointment as commissioner in Santa Monica.
"I am sure that there are a number of qualified candidates for the position of Commissioner of your court," the 1996 letter reads. "Maria Vargas-Rodriguez is special. I believe she is extremely well qualified and I wholeheartedly recommend her for the position."
The letter goes on to laud her as a "fine lawyer," "intelligent and hard working."
"She would be an asset to your court (any court) and you would be fortunate to have her," the letter reads.
It is signed by the presiding judge of the Alhambra Municipal Court—John Martinez.
"I write a pretty good letter," Martinez agrees.
He says he's never seen Vargas-Rodriguez "in action" either on the bench or as a lawyer, but says her work as a pro tem in Alhambra has been limited to traffic tickets and small claims.
"I don't think of her as a dynamic heavyweight in the legal profession," Martinez remarks. He says he doesn't recall any letters of commendation about her, other than his own, but also acknowledges that there have been "no complaints" against her either.
So would she make a good judge? Martinez declines to say yes or no, but he says "she's been known to sell jewelry to clerks and interpreters in the courthouse, maybe because her practice isn't real dynamic."
Vargas-Rodriguez scoffs at the assertion that she is a woman with time on her hands who makes ends meet by peddling jewelry to court employees. Yes, she says, she has a jewelry-making hobby that became a business with a partner, and yes, word got out and some employees once asked her to bring in some samples.
But she has a full practice, she says, encompassing civil and criminal, plus a busy pro tem schedule. She is also a part-time professor at People's College of Law—a school she helped found that, though unaccredited, has produced illustrious graduates such as Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Assemblyman Gil Cedillo.
She put herself through UCLA, and graduated from Loyola Law School in 1973.
She boasts endorsements from law enforcement groups such as the Police Protective League and the Alhambra, San Gabriel and Monterey Park Police Officers Associations.
One supporter, not speaking for attribution, said he would not be surprised if Vargas-Rodriguez takes the election in March, without need for a November runoff.
Vargas-Rodriguez, who hired consultant Victor Griego to steer her campaign, showed little evidence of fundraising for the race in the first reporting period, but says the most recent report will show a war chest to rival Martinez's.
Besides, the candidate says, her contributions consist of small amounts raised from many enthusiastic donors, showing a healthier campaign.
Records show that Chin, 42, has the greatest number of campaign donors, most of whom are San Gabriel Valley business people. He took in more than $20,000 through the middle of last month—well on the way to his goal of $50,000.
The candidate, who generally uses the initials L.C. in lieu of his first name, is an attorney with the California Association of Realtors and has cultivated contacts and friendships in the business community.
The campaign is being managed by his brother.
"We, frankly, are not wealthy," Chin explains. But he adds that he expects strong support in the election and expects to land in a runoff with Martinez.
He says he rarely appears in court, and when he does, it is in civil matters. But that should not be a problem in the criminal-law-heavy Alhambra court, he says.
"I'm a quick learner," he explains. "I don't have a problem with trying criminal cases."
Asian friends have told him, Chin says, that they don't believe Martinez always treats them fairly. But he says that's not why he's running. He says he just believes that he would make a good judge and would serve the community well.
Chin originally sought to have himself designated on the ballot as a commissioner, at one point citing his role as a former city planning commissioner and later as a member of the state Board of Dental Examiners. He also listed himself as a professor and said he was justified since he was a frequent MCLE course instructor and also has taught real estate law at two law schools.
But when officials at the county Registrar-Recorder's Office questioned the description of "Commissioner," he changed the designation to—and the office accepted— "Teacher/ Mediator/Attorney."
Chin was born in Vietnam and came to California as a teenager in 1975. He attended community colleges and earned a degree from USC, then attended Columbia University law school on a scholarship.
After 12 years of practice, he says, he's ready for the bench.
"I've been a long-time resident, and I think I know what's happening in this community," he says.
Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 2000