Wednesday, September 8, 2004
Commissioner’s Use of ‘Judge’ in Candidate Statement Approved
But Bench Hopeful Must Add ‘by Stipulation,’ Superior Court Jurist Rules
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner running for judge won the right in court yesterday to use the term “judge” in her candidate statement, but not in the way she had sought.
Judge Dzintra Janavs granted a peremptory writ of mandate barring Commissioner Donna Groman from describing herself as “the only candidate performing the work of a full-time judge, currently presiding over a criminal courtroom.”
Instead, Janavs ruled, Groman can say she “performs the work of a judge by stipulation, and currently presides over a criminal courtroom.”
Janavs also said Groman cannot have the word “judge” printed in bold-face type in the candidate statement, and may not say she is “recognized as a strict and fair judge.” That language must be replaced by the statement that she is “recognized as being strict and fair,” Janavs ruled.
Janavs’ ruling came only days before the candidate statements are to go to press and the final language was the product of a half-hour hallway conference among the lawyers involved.
Term Not Barred
Veteran election law litigator Bradley W. Hertz of the downtown firm Reed & Davidson pronounced himself “very pleased” with the outcome, though the petition he filed on behalf a voter he described as a “friend” of Groman’s Nov. 2 election opponent asked Janavs to prevent Groman from using the term “judge” at all.
Adding the qualifying language and eliminating the bold-face type “goes a long way towards more accurately representing Groman’s commissioner status to the voters,” Hertz said after the hearing. Eliminating the term, however, “would have made it most accurate,” he added.
Groman, who was not at the hearing, also said she was happy with Janavs’ ruling.
“I actually like the revamped statement,” she told the MetNews. “It clearly expresses what I do in language that people can understand.”
Groman is opposed in the runoff balloting by Deputy District Attorney Judith L. Meyer. The two were the top finishers in a field of five candidates seeking to succeed Judge James Wright in the March 2 primary.
Meyer got just over 247,000 votes, or 32.6 percent, while Groman received just under 221,000, or 29 percent.
Attorney Stephen J. Kaufman of Smith Kaufman, who represented Groman, told Janavs that the commissioner’s proposed candidate statement was only “putting her work in terms that the public can understand.”
But Janavs said that Groman can perform all the duties of a judge only when the parties have so stipulated she can.
“The inference” from the language Groman sought to use “is that she has the same power as a judge,” the jurist declared.
In a three-page tentative decision, which she made final after yesterday’s hearing, Janavs rejected Groman’s bid to distinguish Luke v. Superior Court (1988) 199 Cal.App.3d 1360, a case in which the Court of Appeal barred a commissioner from using the ballot designation “Judge, Los Angeles County (Acting),” ruling it was misleading.
Janavs conceded that Luke involved a ballot designation, not a candidate statement; that Groman has been appointed a “temporary judge” under Rule 6.609 of the California Rules of Court,a situation with which Luke did not deal; and that Groman’s statement clearly acknowledged her correct job title. But the judge declared:
“These distinctions are meaningless here.”
“Precluding false and misleading language in candidates’ statements is as vital to lawful, fair, honest elections and an informed electorate as precluding misleading and false ballot designations. If a phrase in the candidate’s statement is misleading or false, it cannot be saved by other accurate statements.”
“The work of a full-time judge does not require a stipulation of the litigants—.Groman’s unqualified statement that she is performing the work of a full-time judge misleads because it implies that she has full power and authority of a full-time judge. She does not.”
Before hearing arguments yesterday, Janavs emphasized from the bench her respect for the work done by the court’s commissioners, saying she was “very reluctant in a way” to rule against Groman. “I think I have to go by what the law is,” she said.
In her written ruling, Janavs said that since she was not permitting Groman to use the term “judge,” it was unnecessary for her to address the contention by Hertz that by describing herself as the “only” candidate doing the work of a judge Groman was impermissibly making reference to an opponent’s qualifications in violation of Elections Code Sec. 13308.
Though the final language worked out by Hertz and Kaufman, and approved by Janavs, still includes the word “judge,” it no longer includes the word “only,” and Kaufman did not ask the judge to rule on that issue.
As modified, the first of the two sentences challenged by Hertz will read:
“Superior Court Commissioner Donna Groman performs the work of a judge by stipulation, and currently presides over a criminal courtroom.”
The second challenged sentence will read:
“With 7 years on the bench, and 24 years experience in the legal profession, Groman is recognized as being strict and fair.”
In a declaration filed on behalf of the county registrar, Election Preparation Division Manager Priscilla Smith said Sept. 9 would be the last day on which “clerical or other changes to the text of the ballot” could be made. Ballot materials are scheduled to go to the printer on Sept. 11, Smith declared.
Senior Deputy County Counsel Judy Whitehurst appeared at the hearing on behalf of the registrar, but did not take a position on whether the candidate statement Groman submitted complied with the law.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company