Thursday, February 19, 2004
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 18
Four-Way Race for Open Seat Poses Tough Choice for Voters
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Voters who look to the Los Angeles County Bar Association for guidance in casting their ballots for Los Angeles Superior Court will have a tough time making a choice in the four-way race to succeed Judge Marcus Tucker.
The race is the only one to feature both two candidates rated “well qualified” by the bar’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee and no candidates rated “not qualified.”
Like each of the other four open seats, the race has more than one deputy district attorney: a pair of veteran prosecutors, Daniel Feldstern and Pat Campbell, have been forced to square off against each other.
They are joined by Superior Court Referee Mildred Escobedo and Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Miguel Dager. Dager and Feldstern won the LACBA panel’s top rating, while Escobedo and Campbell were rated “qualified” for judicial office.
The contest also featured an acrimonious battle over ballot designations, with Escobedo and Campbell losing their bids for descriptions that might have enhanced their chances.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe rejected Escobedo’s proposal to appear on the ballot as either a “Temporary Judge” or a “Judicial Officer” after a hearing Jan. 8. At the same time, he vetoed Campbell’s proposed designation of “Criminal Prosecutor/Professor.”
The judge ruled—as have others before him—that use of the term “judge” in a ballot designation by a candidate who is not an incumbent is misleading. He also found that Campbell’s employment as a adjunct professor at American College of Law in Anaheim did not justify the “Professor” designation.
Yaffe also turned down a last-minute compromise worked out by lawyers representing Campbell and Escobedo under which she would have been described as a “Superior Court/Subordinate Judicial Officer” and he would have been called a “Prosecutor/Adjunct Professor.” Instead, Escobedo is running as a “Superior Court Referee,” while the ballot describes Campbell—like Feldstern—as a “Criminal Prosecutor.”
Dager will appear on the ballot as a “Deputy City Attorney.” That, he says, is his job title.
“I didn’t like the fact that there had to be a dispute over ballot designations,” he says. “Especially if you’re running for a position where honesty and integrity are the hallmarks of the job, put what you are.”
Dager now handles tax issues for the city, drafting ordinances, presiding over appeals hearings, and advising the city’s treasurer on investments, but when he first joined the City Attorney’s Office in 1990 he spent five years in the Criminal Division prosecuting misdemeanors. He says he did about 10 jury trials.
He acknowledges he gave some thought to other descriptive terminology before deciding his job title was the most straightforward choice.
His move into the Financial Services Division came because he tired of the repetitive nature of misdemeanor criminal work, Dager explains.
“I wanted a bigger legal challenge,” he says.
Dager, a Democrat, says he thought about applying for a judgeship while Gray Davis was governor. He got as far as filling out the application, but never submitted it, he says.
“I waited too long,” he comments, adding that the recall of Davis took him by surprise. “I kind of blew it.”
Dager says his experience with a wide range of legal issues distinguishes him from Feldstern and Campbell. Trial prosecutors are “not really dealing with the law” in the way he does in writing business tax ordinances, he asserts.
Dager’s mother came to the United States from Mexico, and his father is of Lebanese ancestry but emigrated here from Chile. Spanish was the language spoken in his home, he recalls, and he began speaking English only when he started attending school.
His father worked as a machinist and he grew up in what he describes as a “pretty Mexican home.” He went to Cal State Northridge partly because that’s what his high school friends were doing, and at first planned to become an engineer.
Later he switched to political science, and he earned his law degree from Loyola in 1989.
He focused early on a public sector career, Dager says—a brother is a deputy public defender—and a stint clerking in a private firm left him disenchanted with that side of law practice.
“I couldn’t stand it,” he says, citing the “arrogant” atmosphere and the amount of money clients are charged.
Dager is married to a deputy district attorney who works in the same office as Campbell. They have three children ranging in age from five to nine.
Though he is the only candidate in the race who was rated “well qualified” after the first round of interviews—Feldstern, though he himself served on the committee in the last election cycle, had to appeal to win the top rating—Dager concedes his attitude about fundraising may handicap him.
“It just feels wrong to me to give money or to take money if you’re going to be a judge,” Dager declares, though he says he may rethink that position if he finds himself in a runoff. His fundraising reports indicate he plans to raise and no more than $1,000 before the March 2 primary.
“I’m hoping the Times will pick me up,” he says.
The Los Angeles Times has yet to make any endorsements in the judicial races. Though the newspaper initially asked candidates to complete a questionnaire and indicated it would not conduct interviews, some candidates have been asked to meet with the editorial board.
A number of candidates for open seats this year found themselves participating in something like a game of musical chairs at the County Registrar/ Recorder’s Office in Norwalk on the last day for filing, jockeying for position as potential opponents decided which of the five seats to run for.
Mildred Escobedo was not among them.
Escobedo knew she wanted to succeed Tucker, whom she describes as a “mentor.”
Though a new judge’s assignments are made at the discretion of the court’s presiding judge and are unrelated to those held by the judge he or she replaces, Escobedo says the it was important to her to stand for Tucker’s seat. The judge has been instrumental at many stages of her career, Escobedo explains, and encouraged her both to become a referee and to first apply for, and now run for, a judgeship.
She applied, she explains, in 2000, but the State Bar’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission did not find her to be qualified for selection. She says she suspects the commissioners felt she had too little experience at that stage of her career to merit appointment.
Admitted to the bar in 1990, she notes, she was barely at the 10-year minimum required for Superior Court judges.
A full-time referee since 2002, Escobedo handles delinquency cases at the Eastlake Juvenile Court. She first became a referee in 1998.
Her judicial experience, she says, is what sets her apart from her opponents.
“This is a vocation that I’ve chosen,” she says, adding that she will probably again apply to the governor for appointment if she does not win the election.
Though Yaffe’s decision kept her from using the designation on the March ballot, Escobedo says her task in the campaign remains letting the voters know she is and has been a full-time temporary judge.
“I still am,” she comments. “I just can’t use the label.”
She notes that she is appealing Yaffe’s decision, hoping that the Court of Appeal will render a decision in time for her to use the designation in a November runoff.
Immigrants From Yucatan
Escobedo, who did not appeal her initial rating of “qualified” from the County Bar’s evaluation panel, is the daughter of parents who immigrated to the United States from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Both Spanish and Maya were spoken in the household in which she was raised, she recalls.
The youngest daughter in a family of three brothers and four sisters, Escobedo describes herself as a single parent who is raising her one-year-old son with the child’s father. After earning her undergraduate degree at UCLA, she started law school at University of San Francisco Law School, attracted by its affirmative action program.
She recalls being one of two Latinas in the 1986 admitting class. But family issues, she says, cut short her time in San Francisco and she completed her law training at Whittier Law School.
During law school, Escobedo clerked in the Certified Law Clerk program of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, and after graduation she opened an office with a partner, devoting, she explains, much of her efforts to representing residents of the areas poorer communities. She kept the practice going—at first with the partner and later on her own—while serving as an as-needed referee, but gave it up when she went on the bench full time.
Fundraising reports for the period through Jan. 17 showed Escobedo had raised only $5,000, but she says she hopes to raise and spend as much as $50,000 in the primary and perhaps $250,000 if she is in a runoff. That level of primary spending would still leave her far behind Feldstern, who had already raised nearly $150,000 by the end of the reporting period.
Campbell is also ahead of Escobedo in fundraising, according to the reports he filed with county elections officials, which show he raised $15,708 and spent $14,480 by Jan. 17, although nearly all of the money he raised was a loan he made to his campaign.
A prosecutor for all but 18 months of the past 23 years, he spent four years handling misdemeanor, felony and juvenile cases in Miami and West Palm Beach before moving to California in 1984. Here he did some business litigation before joining the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
Campbell says he plans to spend as much as $30,000 on slate mailers, and he has hired veteran judicial campaign consultant Fred Huebscher to oversee his efforts.
Born in New York City, Campbell says he could have followed his father into the air conditioning business in Queens, but instead studied journalism at Ithaca College and George Washington University before earning his law degree at American University’s Washington College of Law.
Arriving in Washington, D.C. at the height of Watergate, Campbell recalls, he soon formed an ambition to have a career in public service. He served as a White House journalism intern and clerked for the Justice Department.
After earning his law degree, he says, he applied to “all 43 U.S. Attorney’s Offices,” but was told he needed state prosecutorial experience first. In a bid to obtain that experience, he went to Miami.
“I found that I liked it,” he says of the job of a local prosecutor, noting that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, where he clerked, also prosecutes local crime. But Miami “wasn’t a young person’s place,” he explains, adding:
“I always had an itch to come to California.”
Campbell, who initiated the court battle over ballot designations by petitioning to block Escobedo from calling herself “Temporary Judge,” had little reason to fear Yaffe would find his “Criminal Prosecutor/Professor” terminology objectionable. During the 2000 campaign, Yaffe declined to block Superior Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan from appearing on the ballot as “Court Commissioner/Professor.”
Carnahan taught a course for aspiring paralegals at El Camino Community College in Torrance, and Yaffe did not then find it dispositive that the school termed him an instructor, reserving the title of “professor” for full-time faculty members. Voters, he said, think of a professor simply as “someone who teaches at an institution of higher learning.”
But when Escobedo challenged the designation as misleading in her response to Campbell’s writ petition, the judge found the two situations distinguishable.
Deprived of his desired ballot description and with a County Bar rating a notch below two of his opponents, Campbell may find that his campaign will provide a test of the theory that slate mailers and identification as a criminal prosecutor can be enough to propel a candidate into a runoff.
He declines to make any predictions.
“In this election cycle, can you truly anticipate anything?” he asks.
Seeking to distinguish his qualifications from those of his competitors, he cites the “broader range” of his experience, which includes both criminal and civil practice, appellate work, and volunteer work as a temporary judge in small claims court.
In addition to trying 70 felony prosecutions to jury verdict between 1985 and 1997, Campbell notes, he has worked in the office’s Appellate Division, served on the countywide Inter-Agency Gang Task Force, coordinated implementation of the drug treatment provisions of Proposition 36 in the San Fernando Valley courts, and trained other prosecutors.
He recalls with amusement the afternoon of the final day for filing, as a group of prosecutors waited in Norwalk for colleagues to settle on particular races. Avoiding a battle against another deputy district attorney proved impossible—there are at least two running for each open seat—but Campbell says he didn’t want to run against Craig Mitchell, who is one of six candidates seeking the seat being vacated by Judge Rosemary Shumsky.
He knows Mitchell too well, and respects him too much, to become a candidate in the same race, he explains.
He calls Mitchell “incredibly qualified,” adding:
“I’d vote for him in a heartbeat.”
But it was only at the last minute, as the office was about to close, that Mitchell finally decided to enter the Shumsky race, Campbell recalls.
“Literally, they were shutting off the lights,” he says.
Campbell succeeded in avoiding Mitchell, but he was not able to avoid Feldstern.
With a “well qualified” rating from the County Bar, the endorsement of District Attorney Steve Cooley, and the only candidate statement in the race, Feldstern—who has hired Renee Nahum as a campaign consultant—has all the marks of a front runner.
He trailed only Referee D. Zeke Zeidler and Deputy District Attorney Judith L. Meyer in fundraising among all the candidates for open seats as of the end of the last reporting period, with a lead of more than $100,000 over Campbell, his nearest competitor in his own race.
He boasts endorsements from Sheriff Lee Baca, County Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Yvonne Burke, 16 Superior Court judges, four local Democratic clubs and the Pasadena Bar Association, all neatly displayed on a glitzy Web site at www.danfeldstern.com.
Though this is Feldstern’s first election campaign, it is not his first bid for judicial office. He sought appointment from Davis, he says, appearing before the State Bar’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission in 2002 and getting as far as an interview with Burt Pines, who was then the governor’s judicial appointments secretary and is now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.
Feldstern says he is not sure why Davis, who left no Los Angeles Superior Court vacancies unfilled when he was recalled from office, never named him to the bench. He says he believes the JNE Commission found him either “well qualified” or “exceptionally well qualified”—unlike the County Bar, the commission employs a fourth evaluation level—though he concedes he was never directly told what his rating was.
The prosecutor says he worked hard on advancing his application, relying in part on the advice of Cooley, even though the district attorney is a member of the other political party.
“I’m not politically connected, in a broad sense, at all,” Feldstern declares. “I feel like everything that has happened to me has been merit-based.”
Feldstern says he focused early on a law career. He grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles and recalls his father, an optometrist, taking him to watch court proceedings.
He attended Fairfax High School, serving as student body vice-president, and earned his undergraduate degree at Occidental College. After college graduation, he took a year off to travel in the United States, Europe and North Africa—“I’m grounded from that,” he declares—and then went to work as a sales representative for a division of Litton Industries.
“But the idea of practicing law kept coming back to me,” Feldstern says, and three years after leaving college he enrolled at Southwestern University School of Law.
He spent two years as an associate at Trope and Trope, where he had clerked during law school, practicing family law with a firm he describes as on the “cutting edge” of family law practice, before joining the District Attorney’s Office in 1986.
Feldstern is married to Deputy District Attorney Lisa Kahn, who heads the office’s forensic science section, and who joined the office before he did. They met in a constitutional law class at law school, he explains, noting:
“It was love at first sight.”
Kahn’s experiences as a deputy district attorney motivated him to leave Trope and Trope and become a deputy district attorney, Feldstern recalls.
“Watching her work, and talking to her about her work, inspired me to join the office,” he says.
His career goals as a prosecutor, Feldstern relates, have been to “try serious cases” and to “rise to the administrative ranks.” He has achieved both.
After learning the ropes as an East Los Angeles Municipal Court trial deputy and doing felony trials, he spent most of the 1990s with the Major Narcotics and Forfeiture Division, the Hardcore Gang Division, and the Special Investigations Division, which deals with crimes committed by public officials and police officers. By the end of the decade he was supervising other deputies and in 2001 he became deputy-in-charge of the Sylmar Juvenile Office.
Feldstern says he is especially proud of his work in Sylmar and in his current assignment, which followed that one, as deputy-in-charge of the Glendale and Burbank Court Office. In these jobs, he argues, he showed the kind of management skills a judge has to have to make a courtroom operate smoothly.
The Sylmar office, he asserts, had “definite structural problems” when he first arrived there. As deputy-in-charge there, he says, he also had to supervise a chronically overburdened satellite office at the Antelope Valley courthouse, and he was able to convince the District Attorney’s Office to increase its staffing.
“I really worked the system to change,” Feldstern declares, adding:
“Now that is a functional place.”
In Glendale and Burbank, he explains, he oversaw a consolidation of criminal court operations that resulted in increased efficiency.
The separate courts in Glendale and Burbank “were handling a fraction of the cases that they could handle,” Feldstern asserts, tying up deputies unnecessarily. Their criminal operations needed to be combined at a single location, he says.
“It took me five months, but I accomplished that,” Feldstern asserts.
Feldstern says that if the campaign extends into a November runoff, he may spend more than $150,000.
“I find it striking, but that’s what it can cost,” he comments.
He has had to pay $65,000 to county elections officials for printing costs associated with his candidate statement, and says he expects to have a statement in the runoff if there is one.
His fundraising lead through Jan. 17 was largely based, records show, on a $60,000 loan from his father and $25,000 he has loaned to his own campaign. And any advantage from a “Criminal Prosecutor” ballot designation will be “muted” by the presence of Campbell in the race, Feldstern suggests.
Despite the factors which favor him, he says he is not overconfident.
“It’s going to be a horse race,” Feldstern predicts.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company