By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
Two judicial races are in progress in the former Antelope Judicial District. One race is spirited, with incumbent Pamela Rogers and the more vocal of her two challengers, attorney William Clark, lobbing charge and counter-charge. In contrast is Antelope's quiet race—a subdued contest for an open seat between two lawyers each of whom draws praise from the local bench and bar.
David Bianchi, 49, is one of the contestants. His chief attribute is 20 years of experience in law practice. The only weakness pointed to by his adversary is that Bianchi's practice is largely restricted to family law cases.
Christopher G. Estes, 37, is the other candidate. His chief asset is a background in both civil and criminal law; he's currently a deputy district attorney and formerly worked for a downtown litigation firm. His shortcoming, as Bianchi sees it, is that he has been a lawyer for only eight years.
The consensus, however, is that either candidate is fully capable of serving as a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. (Though the contest will appear on the March 7 ballot as one for the Antelope Municipal Court, no such court exists. Municipal courts in Los Angeles County were abolished when trial court courts unified on Jan. 22, and either Estes or Bianchi will assume office on Jan. 8, 2001 as a Superior Court judge.)
Although the general state constitutional requirement for serving on the Superior Court is 10 years as a member of the State Bar, that prerequisite does not pertain where the contest started out as one for a municipal court seat.
Whatever negative effect the brevity of his experience in law might have on Estes' chances, that factor is apt to be more than outweighed by an advantage he enjoys. He's backed by the powers that be in the Antelope Valley—most notably, by attorney R. Rex Parris, who gives money to local candidates, helps them raise funds, and guides their campaigns. "I'm active in every local race," Parris notes, and terms that involvement "my passion."
Parris backed Rogers in 1994 and Steven Ogden in 1998 in their successful bids for open seats on the Antelope Municipal Court.
Estes says that Parris' help has been of "appreciable" value to him in terms of the money he's personally donated—$1,000—and "probably more in terms of time, organizing the campaign." He says Parris has been "talking to people and trying to spread the word" about his candidacy.
A lawyer in Parris' office, Scott Idelman, is coordinating his campaign, Estes notes. Idelman is this year's president of the Antelope Valley Bar Assn.
Bianchi, on the other hand, has an experienced professional campaign consultant, Fred Huebscher.
Joseph R. Cerrell, generally regarded as the foremost political consultant in judicial races, says Huebscher "knows judicial elections." Nonetheless, he questions whether Huebscher can do as much for Bianchi as Idelman can do for Estes. "The slight advantage goes to the guy with the local operation," he opines.
Cerrell notes that he was contacted by both Bianchi and Estes but decided to stay out of the race because of the remoteness of the Antelope Valley from his Larchmont Boulevard office in the mid-Wilshire area. While he is guiding campaigns in the former Alhambra, Beverly Hills and Downey judicial districts, those places are "all part of the greater Los Angeles area," he explains, noting that the Antelope Valley is a "very closed area" that's "in the hinterlands."
The consultant sees another advantage for Estes in his ballot designation. He's listed as "Deputy District Attorney," while Bianchi is billed as a "Family Law Attorney." Being identified as a prosecutor—especially in a politically conservative neck of the woods like the Antelope Valley—is "a strong plus," Cerrell observes.
Both victors in races for open seats there in recent years—Rogers and Ogden—were deputy district attorneys.
On the other hand, Bianchi does have superior name identification in the area. Adding that to the equation, Cerrell sees the race as a "toss up."
Estes, himself, concedes: "I think I don't really have a lot of name identification." He says he has "tried to stay out of the limelight" and keep a low profile.
Bianchi, he acknowledges, "definitely knows a lot more people than I do."
On that point, the candidates are in agreement.
"People know me and who I am," Bianchi remarks.
His work in the community at large has included service as exalted ruler of the Elks Lodge, president of the Kiwanis Club, board member of the Salvation Army, and a youth soccer coach and referee.
Within the local legal community, Bianchi is well known. He served in 1988 as president of the Antelope Valley Bar Assn.
Bianchi says he's bagged the endorsements of 60-70 local attorneys, as well as those of Antelope Valley Judges Frank Y. Jackson and Richard Spaan and Commissioner Eugene Siegel.
Jackson—who was a partner in the same firm as Bianchi for 10 years—says his former colleague "has the experience," having sat as a pro tem judge. Hailing Bianchi as a man of "high integrity," he describes him as "well respected, bright, hard-working." Jackson has contributed $100 to his campaign.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that Estes "does a fine job" as a prosecutor.
Siegel says of the candidate he's supporting:
"Mr. Bianchi is like a dean of lawyers, and tremendously respected."
Estes points to endorsements he's received from four judges in the Antelope Valley—Randy and Pamela Rogers, Steven Ogden and Chesley McKay—and one judge who sat there until recently, Michael Luros. (The judge whose decision not to seek another term created the open seat, William Seelicke, is endorsing neither candidate.)
Judge Randy Rogers terms Estes a "genuine gentleman" with the "highest integrity." He makes clear, however, that he has no criticism of Bianchi, saying that either candidate could handle the job.
His wife, Judge Pamela Rogers, likewise notes, "I can say positive things about both candidates." She comments:
"Mr. Estes is a very well qualified deputy district attorney. He has a high degree of integrity."
She adds that Bianchi is "a decent guy" with a "good reputation in the family law area."
Luros observes that Estes is "a very responsible, honorable prosecutor—but not one who will always go for the maximum." Of Bianchi, he says, "From what I've heard, he's very well qualified."
Aside from his endorsements by judges, Estes notes his support from Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Assemblyman George Runner, R-Lancaster, and key law enforcement organizations. On his campaign website, Estes is trumpeted as "The Choice of Law Enforcement."
Communication With Voters
Estes' candidate statement directs voters to that website; it's at http://www.EstesForJudge.com. The website has a link to the campaign e-mail address: email@example.com.
Bianchi is also soliciting communications from voters—but through older technology. His candidate statement says, "Please call me at (661) 948-5021 to speak with me personally."
The only other judicial candidate in the county inviting telephone calls in his candidate statement is Deputy District Attorney Richard Stone, who, like Bianchi, is represented by Huebscher.
Bianchi notes that including his phone number on the candidate statement was "Fred's idea." He relates that he didn't much like the suggested approach—"I'm afraid of being inundated with calls," Bianchi says—but figured that since he was paying a consultant, he should take his advice.
"It's the office number," he adds.
The office is that of Michelizzi, Schwabacher, Ward & Bianchi in Lancaster, which Bianchi advises is the oldest law firm in the Antelope Valley. "I've been with them for 20 years," he says.
During an early part of that period—from 1984-87—Bianchi was a deputy city attorney for Lancaster.
Education and Golf
Born and reared in Amsterdam, New York, Bianchi forayed to Florida to attend undergraduate school. He matriculated at Florida State University on a golf scholarship, graduating in 1972. Bianchi then worked as a sales representative for Campbell's Soup Company in upstate New York for a couple of years before hitting the books again, undertaking studies at San Fernando Valley College of Law. He attained his JD in 1979 and was admitted to the State Bar that same year.
Bianchi has served as an instructor in business law at Antelope Valley College since 1983 and has handled, by his reckoning, "hundreds" of cases as a judge pro tem. Martindale-Hubbell gives him its highest rating of "AV" (and does not list Estes).
In 1985, he was certified by the State Bar as a family law specialist. He lists as other practice areas adoptions, estate planning, and probate.
It's Bianchi's specialization in family law that prompts Estes to scoff that his opponent is "a perfect candidate for a commissioner position or a referee position." He explains that family law matters traditionally have been handled in the Antelope Valley by a subordinate judicial officer.
Estes touts his own experience. He's been a prosecutor for the past five years, and was a civil practitioner from 1991-1994 for Engstrom, Lipscomb and Lack in downtown Los Angeles.
Estes was born in New Hampshire in 1962, but was soon to leave the Granite State for more exotic terrain. His father was an Episcopal priest, and both of his parents were missionaries. "We lived overseas, in Hong Kong and the jungles of Borneo," he recalls. Estes, who speaks Cantonese, remarks: "I had a lot of exposure to a lot of cultures."
In the 1980s, he returned with his parents to the United States. His father was assigned to serve as pastor of a church in New Mexico, and Estes enrolled at New Mexico State University, majoring in social work. During his undergraduate years, he served as an intern for the Probation and Parole Division of the state Corrections Department, preparing pre-sentence reports on criminal defendants, and as an intern at the U.S. Army base at Fort Bliss, investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect by military personnel. Estes obtained his bachelor's degree in 1984.
The next venue was Tulane University in New Orleans, where Estes attained a master's degree in social work in 1985. During his studies, he interned with the Associated Catholic Charities, providing psychotherapeutic intervention with children and their parents, as well as other family members.
After leaving Tulane, Estes helped his family move to San Diego. He settled in Southern California, himself, working from 1985-88 for the San Bernardino County Child Protective Service, investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect, and rendering reports recommending whether the children be removed from their homes.
Estes reflects that this experience was valuable to him as a prosecutor in dealing with victims of sex abuse.
His next stop was Malibu. Estes earned his law degree in 1991 from Pepperdine University. While in law school, he made full use of the extern program, serving as a certified law clerk for the Santa Barbara District Attorney's Office, and as a law clerk to Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Harvey A. Schneider and Bernard J. Kamins, and for the Los Angeles firm now known as Girardi & Keese.
County Bar Ratings
Estes' ensuing career in law has been varied but, as the Bianchi loyalists point out, relatively short. It is apparently that factor that accounts for his tentative County Bar rating of "qualified."
"I expected a 'qualified,'" Estes says, adding:
"I don't agree with a 'qualified.' If you take a look at what I've done in the eight years, I'm more than qualified."
Estes has expressed a disinclination to appeal his rating.
Negating the County Bar ratings as a potential factor in the election is the fact that Bianchi, too, drew a rating of "qualified" and did not appeal.
The subcommittee that rated him faulted him for a lack of criminal-law experience, he relates.
"There's not much I can do on an appeal on that," he says. "Either I have it [criminal-law experience] or I don't."
Should he be elected, Bianchi notes, he would "come in the criminal arena with no biases," having no background as either a prosecutor or defense lawyer.
Estes, whose wife is a retired deputy sheriff, is relying heavily on law enforcement support. A fundraiser billed as "Law Enforcement Night" is slated to be held tomorrow.
So far, Estes says, he has only raised about $8,000 and is counting on tomorrow's fundraiser and an "All Supporters" fundraiser scheduled for Feb. 15 to bring in necessary revenues.
The prosecutor says that of the funds in his campaign coffers, "very little of it is my own money."
By contrast, Bianchi shows in his latest campaign financial disclosure statement, covering the period through Jan. 22, that he's lent his campaign $15,000. In addition to that, he's raised $7,371 in contributions.
At this point, Cerrell's observation that the contest is a "toss up" would draw little dissent. Even Estes' mentor and benefactor Parris acknowledges:
"It could go either way."