Wednesday, February 18, 2004
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 52
Two Prosecutors Square Off Against Second-Time Candidate
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Voters in this year’s judicial races have a lot of choices to make.
There are nine races altogether, four of them involving challenges to sitting judges. And of the five open seats, four of them have between four and six candidates each.
But the contest for Superior Court Office No. 52, the seat held by Judge Nancy Brown before her retirement last month, has only three candidates. And that suits Deputy District Attorney Laura Priver just fine.
“It was pure luck” that enabled her to avoid running in one of the large fields seeking open seats this year, Priver says, giving her a shot at winning the seat outright in the primary.
That probably won’t happen, Priver and campaign consultant Fred Huebscher say.
“The odds are against it,” the Hermosa Beach-based political pro, who is handling candidates in six of the nine races, opines. “But she’s the only candidate in an open seat who has a chance to win without a runoff.”
To do that, the Ft. Wayne, Ind. native will have to defeat fellow Deputy District Attorney Larry Diamond and Workers’ Compensation Judge John Gutierrez. It’s Diamond’s first judicial run, and the second for Gutierrez.
Priver was rated “well qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s evaluations panel. Gutierrez and Diamond were both rated “qualified.”
Gutierrez spoke to the MetNews when he ran two years ago, but did not return phone calls seeking an interview for this story. He was criticized in a MetNews editorial during the previous campaign after he was unable to name a single justice of the Court of Appeal, or the state attorney general, and acknowledged that he did not keep up with legal developments outside the workers’ compensation field.
Diamond consented to an interview, but declined to be photographed. A prosecutor for nearly three decades, he expressed concern that “prison law libraries may subscribe to legal newspapers.”
The most likely outcome of the March 2 primary, Huebscher says, is a runoff between Priver and Gutierrez. As the only woman in the race, as well as being a prosecutor and having her name on several slate mailers, Priver has perceived advantages.
But it’s not certain that those will overcome the value of Gutierrez’s Hispanic surname and ballot designation of “Administrative Law Judge.” Huebscher should know, because he worked for then-Deputy District Attorney Richard Walmark, who defeated Gutierrez in the county’s closest judge race two years ago.
Gutierrez, who got 48.6 percent of the vote in that effort, is back, touting his background as an adjudicator, now with more than 10 years on the bench. “There is no substitute for judicial experience, and I have that experience,” the 55-year-old Gutierrez told voters at a candidate’s forum last Sunday.
The event, sponsored by local chapters of the League of Women Voters, was taped for broadcast on local cable systems.
Gutierrez was born in Freeport, Tex. and grew up in nearby Clute, the son of a Brazos port stevedore and a homemaker.
Change of Course
He graduated from high school in Freeport and entered the University of Texas, preparing to be a teacher. But then his father became involved in a land dispute, and Gutierrez describes his own role as being an “intermediary” between his father and the court.
“Something happens and then all of a sudden you are presented with what you are going to do with your life,” Gutierrez says.
He became interested in the legal system and thought about law school. A professor suggested he take a look at schools in California, and he enrolled in 1974 in what was then known as the University of San Fernando. He worked his way through law school with a job in a grocery store.
Gutierrez graduated in 1978. He did not become a State Bar member until 1983.
“I took the bar about four times, maybe five,” he explains. “It’s not an easy bar to pass.”
In the meantime, he had become a small business liaison officer for Teledyne Controls, making certain that small companies with Defense Department contracts got their share of government funds.
After he passed the bar exam, he joined the District Attorney’s Office and was assigned first to downtown, then to East Los Angeles. He did not stay long.
“I left there because I always wanted to be on my own,” Gutierrez says. Using a loan from his father, he set up a solo practice in Eagle Rock, doing criminal defense, personal injury and divorce cases. The practice folded after a year.
Scanning the want ads, he found a position assisting a workers’ compensation lawyer and never left the field. He worked for the State Compensation insurance Fund, then insurer Industrial Indemnity and then, with another loan from his father, he struck out on his own again.
This time he was more successful, opening an office in San Fernando in which he shared staff and office space with another lawyer. He focused on workers’ compensation, with a measure of criminal and personal injury cases as well.
He was hired as a workers’ compensation judge in 1993.
Priver, 45, came west after graduation from Indiana University and attended Whittier School of Law. She has spent her entire legal career in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, which she joined in August 1984.
She has tackled a variety of assignments as a prosecutor. She worked in the office’s anti-truancy program, was a calendar deputy in Pasadena, was deputy-in-charge of juvenile court at three different courthouses at various times, prosecuted sex crimes and child abuse cases, and has been the legal adviser to the criminal grand jury for the past four years.
She says she will be a reasonable, but no-nonsense, judge.
“I’m aggressive in trial....But there’s no reason to be nasty,” she posits.
“I would definitely be firm,” Priver says. “You can’t run an efficient courtroom and let attorneys run around willy-nilly.”
She has had judicial aspirations for some time, she acknowledges, having applied for an appointment during Pete Wilson’s administration. She made it far enough along in the process to gain interviews with the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and the governor’s judicial appointments secretary, she explains.
A person close to the process—she does not recall who—told her she was not selected because she was too young. “In hindsight, I think they were right,” she adds, saying she has learned a great deal in the past nine years.
May Seek Appointment
A Republican, she did not reapply under former Gov. Gray Davis, but says she may ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for an appointment if she loses the election. She probably will ask for an appointment if she wins as well, she explains, because the seat is now vacant and would not be filled until next January if no appointment is made.
Diamond, 56, is a veteran of many of his office’s highest-profile cases, of which the best-known may be that of Robert Rosenkrantz, now serving a 17-year-to-life prison term.
Jurors convicted Rosenkrantz of a lesser-included offense of second degree murder in the June 28, 1985, assault weapon shooting death of Steven Redman, a fellow Calabasas High graduate who disclosed to the killer’s father, Calabasas attorney Herbert Rosenkrantz, that Robert Rosenkrantz is gay.
The case was the subject of a California Supreme Court decision after Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a parole board finding that Rosenkrantz was suitable for parole. That finding was made only after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support the board’s earlier finding that Rosenkrantz was unfit for release.
Diamond also prosecuted Jose Ramon Morales, who pled guilty to second degree murder in the death of his wife, who had married him while he was in a halfway house completing a sentence for an earlier murder. The victim disappeared three days after telling friends she was moving to Los Angeles to live with her new husband and six days before her hand was found on the Hollywood Freeway. by a police officer returning home from work.
Diamond’s early assignments included juvenile court and the downtown trial courts. He later went to the Crimes Against Peace Officers unit, where he prosecuted a reporter for the Star supermarket tabloid for allegedly stabbing an officer with a ballpoint pen after detectives refused to grant the reporter an interview on the death of actor William Shatner’s wife.
He was specially assigned to Santa Monica to try David Scott Smith, a psychotic homeless man convicted of murdering social worker Robbyn Panitch. Smith was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison after jurors rejected his claim of insanity.
Diamond acknowledges that his aggressive style has irked judges, defense lawyers, and even fellow prosecutors. But he makes no apologies and says his style will make him an asset to the bench.
“There’s no doubt that I have rubbed people the wrong way,” he says. “I’ve battled criminal defense lawyers my whole career.”
Diamond denounces “the so-called professional courtesy that helps criminal defense lawyers make a living” and says that courts are too accommodating to lawyers and forget their duty to the public. He cites a case in which a judge granted a one-day delay, over his vociferous objection, in mid-trial in order to allow a defense lawyer to take a previously scheduled fishing trip with his father.
“I thought it was terribly inappropriate,” he says, because it left a courtroom empty and disrupted his schedule and those of the witnesses, jurors, and court staff. “I could give you 1,000 stories like that,” he says.
But being a career prosecutor, he says, does not mean he will be a pro-prosecution judge. As a filing deputy for many years, he says, he knows how to fairly and impartially evaluate cases.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company