Rating System Debated at Forum for Judicial Candidates
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Los Angeles County Bar Association’s system of rating judicial candidates was both defended and attacked at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters Sunday in which more than half the candidates participated.
Comments on the system, final results of which were released last week, ranged from cautious support to harsh criticism. Predictably, the four candidates in attendance who were rated “not qualified” for judicial office voiced the strongest reservations about the process.
But two candidates found “well qualified” joined in the criticism at the event, which took place in the West Covina City Council chambers before an audience of about 60 and was videotaped for broadcast on local cable outlets.
Deputy District Attorney Marc Debbaudt, who is running along with two others against Judge Dan Oki, said voters should rely on their own impressions, rather than the bar group, in deciding how to vote.
“I truly believe there’s politics and personality involved” in the ratings, Debbaudt, whose rating was boosted to “well qualified” after he appealed a “qualified” rating, said.
Deputy Attorney General Bob Henry, one of six candidates to succeed Judge Rosemary Shumsky, declared:
“You can take those ratings and dump them in the trash can.”
Henry had already criticized the LACBA process before his rating was raised from “qualified” to “well qualified” on appeal.
Neither Oki nor any of the other three judges being challenged attended the forum. Oki and Judge David Wesley, who also faces three opponents, were rated “well qualified.”
Judge Richard W. Van Dusen was rated “qualified,” while Judge Chesley McKay—who has been off the bench ill for more than six months—was rated “not qualified.” Both Van Dusen’s challenger, Century City insurance defense lawyer Daniel K. Dik, and McKay’s, Department of Industrial Relations attorney Stella Owens-Murrell, won “qualified” ratings.
Perhaps the most strident criticism of the ratings process was voiced by another Oki opponent, Deputy District Attorney Hilary Rhonan, who claimed she was evaluated by attorneys who had contributed to Oki’s campaign. She did not name them, and did not return a call from the MetNews yesterday.
Rhonan, who was rated “not qualified,” said the LACBA committee penalized her for being a “woman who is daring to run against an incumbent judge.”
Deputy District Attorney Edward Nison, who received a “not qualified” rating in a six-way contest to succeed Judge Richard Hubbell, charged that he was initially evaluated by a “separate committee from other candidates in my race,” and said he was given only a “general and vague” explanation of the criticisms of him on which committee members appeared to be relying.
“It appears someone somewhere was out to get me, and unfortunately the bar allowed that to happen,” Nison declared.
Another deputy district attorney who was rated “not qualified,” Carol Najera, noted her rating was downgraded from “qualified” after she appealed it, while Sherman Oaks lawyer Mitchell Roth called the process “subjective” and “somewhat mysterious.”
Roth was rated “not qualified” in the five-way race to succeed Judge James Wright, in which Najera is also running.
Deputy District Attorney Judith L. Meyer, another candidate in the same race, mounted a defense of the process, pointing out that the LACBA committee includes a wide variety of practitioners. Meyer did not mention that she herself served on the committee in the last election cycle.
That service was noted in the committee’s final report, which placed an asterisk next to her rating and that of Deputy District Attorney Daniel Feldstern, who also was a member of the panel during the 2002 judicial elections. Feldstern was also rated “well qualified.”
Meyer did, like several others in her situation, draw attention to the fact that her “well qualified” rating was achieved without the aid on an appeal. Under the panel’s rules, initial ratings are base on the evaluation of a subcommittee.
If less than “well qualified,” the initial ratings are tentative and can be appealed to the full committee, which includes nearly 50 attorneys.
The format of the midafternoon event did not lend itself to fireworks between opposing candidates. Rules promulgated by the organizers asked candidates to open with a two-minute statement addressing the “personal qualities and experience” that equips them for judicial office and barred “remarks specific to other candidates.”
Questions from audience members had to be in writing and were screened by the organizers.
Most candidates chose to stress the variety in their backgrounds and experience and their roots in the community. The 20 candidates were divided into two groups—without separating candidates running in the same race—and about half the two-and-one-half hour session was devoted to each group.
Only three or four questions were posed in each session, with each candidate being given a minute or less to respond, and the candidates were then allowed a one minute summation.
A question about the need for fairness provided the black and Latino candidates an opportunity to urge diversity on the bench, though neither of the two openly gay candidates—Superior Court Referee D. Zeke Zeidler and Superior Court Commissioner Donna Groman—made any reference to their sexual orientations.
A question about how advocacy for one side affects neutrality on the bench prompted some of the 11 candidates in attendance who are prosecutors—and the one police officer, Los Angeles Police Dept. Sgt. Kevin Burke—to argue that their roles do not prevent them from seeing both sides of a criminal case.
“We’re trained to be fair and we can be fair,” Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey S. Gootman, a candidate for Hubbell’s seat, remarked.
But some of the candidates with other backgrounds said the Superior Court bench is already heavily laden with former prosecutors and could use an influx of different blood.
Roth pointed out that civil cases, not criminal prosecutions, make up most of the workload of the Superior Court, and Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Miguel Dager, who does mostly tax work for the city, commented:
“Neutrality is really difficult when you’re stuck in one area.”
The 20 candidates who attended were:
•Dager and Feldstern from the four-way race for the seat currently held by Judge Marcus Tucker;
•Gootman, Nison, Deputy Public Defender C. Edward Mack, and Acton attorney Larry H. Layton from the six-way race to replace Hubbell;
•Workers’ Compensation Judge John Gutierrez, one of three candidates to succeed Judge Nancy Brown, who retired last month;
•Henry, Zeidler, and Deputy District Attorneys David Lopez and Craig Mitchell from the six-way race for the seat being surrendered by Shumsky;
•Dik, who is running against Van Dusen;
•Groman, Meyer, Najera and Roth, who are four of the five candidates seeking to replace Wright;
•Wesley opponent Burke;
•Oki opponents Debbaudt and Rhonan; and
•Owens-Murrell, who is seeking to unseat McKay.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company