Monday, February 23, 2004
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Superior Court Office No. 53
Crowded Race for Open Superior Court Seat Draws Money as Well as Interest
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Neither the size of the field nor the amount of money being raised and spent in the race to replace Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rosemary Shumsky is likely to impress voters who recently experienced California’s gubernatorial runoff.
But by the standards for judicial races, traditionally so low-profile that many voters arrive at the polls to see the names of the candidates for the first time, this is a crowded contest that could, if it goes to a November runoff, also become very expensive.
Six candidates—a Superior Court referee, a deputy attorney general, an attorney whose father is already a judge, and three deputy district attorneys are running for the seat. Only one other race in this year’s judicial elections has drawn as many would-be judges, although there is also one race with five candidates.
Financial reports filed by the candidates for the period ending Jan. 17 showed the race is also drawing the most money, with the referee leading all of those running for judicial positions this year in fundraising and the judge’s son ahead of everyone else in spending.
The race also was one which played a part in what could have been called the “dance of the deputy district attorneys” during the November filing period last year, as the thirteen prosecutors from the District Attorney’s Office who wound up competing in the five contests for open seats vainly sought to avoid running against one another.
The arithmetic left little chance of that. There are at least two in every race, and three races have three each.
Deputy District Attorney Craig Mitchell was one of the last to decide which race to enter. His colleague, Pat Campbell, recalls the two of them and several other prosecutors waiting to finalize their choices on the last day as county election workers got ready to turn out the lights and close the filing window.
When Mitchell selected the Shumsky race, Campbell says, he filed to run instead for the seat being vacated by Judge Marcus Tucker.
Campbell says he knows Mitchell too well, and finds his qualifications too impressive, to run against him. The Los Angeles County Bar Association panel that evaluates judicial candidates was apparently also impressed, giving Mitchell its highest rating: “well qualified.”
Referee D. Zeke Zeidler was also rated “well qualified” by the bar’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee, as was Deputy Attorney General Bob Henry. The two other deputy district attorneys running for the seat, David Lopez and Craig Renetzky, were rated only “qualified.”
The sixth candidate, attorney Michael Shook, was rated “not qualified.”
High School Teacher
Mitchell, who taught high school for over sixteen years before becoming an attorney and has the backing of his boss, District Attorney Steve Cooley, has been a prosecutor since 1994. He notes that he applied for a judgeship while Gray Davis was governor, but never interviewed with the State Bar’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission.
If he is not successful in this election he will probably seek appointment again, he says.
Most of his teaching experience came at Serra High School in Gardena, a Catholic institution for boys whose students are, Mitchell explains, about 95 percent African American and 5 percent Latino.
He describes that experience as “nine years that I would not exchange for anything,” noting that it provided him with his “first cross-cultural and cross-ethnic experience” and still deeply influences the way he deals with his duties as a prosecutor.
Serra students typically graduate and often go on to college, Mitchell says. But in 1989 he moved to the Los Angeles Unified School District, teaching at a continuation school in the Crenshaw district.
While his students there were also predominantly African American, many of them had gang affiliations and probation officers. He calls that experience “extremely rewarding,” but says by the end of the 1980s he was ready for a “new intellectual challenge” and enrolled in the night law program at Southwestern.
He joined the District Attorney’s Office after a couple of years in private practice and now prosecutes serious felonies, estimating that he has tried about 35 cases to a jury verdict within the last five years.
Mitchell grew up in the Pasadena area and in Irvine, and earned his undergraduate degree from UCLA. On his Web site, mitchellforjudge.com, he touts his endorsements from Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca, and about a dozen judges from the downtown criminal courts.
His trial work, he asserts, distinguishes him from some of the other candidates in the race. But he says he expects to spend only about $25,000 before the March 2 primary—far less than Zeidler and Shook have already invested—and he concedes that Zeidler, at least, is likely to provide stiff opposition.
(County officials said two weeks ago they had not yet received required fundraising reports from Mitchell. Mitchell says his campaign inadvertently filed the wrong form and that the error has since been rectified.)
Zeidler was leading all county judicial candidates in fundraising through the period ending Jan. 17, reporting that his campaign had raised $180,355 and spent $86,556.
The referee, who has been a bench officer since 1998, is assigned to the Children’s Court in Monterey Park where he hears dependency cases.
Observers of judicial elections have questioned the value of “Superior Court Referee” as a ballot designation, suggesting that in the minds of some voters it may suggest a sports official rather than someone whose duties closely track those of a judge. But Zeidler, who is one of two openly gay candidates running for judge this year (the other is another bench officer, Commissioner Donna Groman), is a political veteran who believes he will be able to reach voters with the message that he is the candidate who experience on the bench.
Zeidler spent five years on the Redondo Beach School Board, winning election and reelection, and ran unsuccessfully for the state Assembly in 1998, finishing third in the open primary behind Republican Bill Eggers and fellow-Democrat George Nakano, who won the seat in the general election.
“I have the fire in the belly and the campaign experience,” Zeidler says, noting that he raised $250,000 for his Assembly bid.
In the judicial primary, he says, he expects to spend as much as $140,000. A big chunk of that—$65,000—has gone to pay to cost of printing a candidate statement which is included in the materials mailed to voters by county elections officials. Shook also purchased a statement.
Zeidler’s statement stresses that he is the “ONLY candidate for Office #53 with current judicial experience presiding daily over a courtroom,” notes that he has presided over 20,000 hearings as a referee, and cites his backing from Justices Paul Boland, Arthur Gilbert, J. Gary Hastings, and Div. Seven Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss, all of this district’s Court of Appeal.
It also points out he was honored by the Juvenile Courts Bar Association as the outstanding judicial officer in 2002 and has the support of County Supervisors Don Knabe and Zev Yaroslavsky and “[o]ver 30” Superior Court judges and judicial officers.
Zeidler sought appointment to the bench from Davis two years ago. Though he was interviewed by the JNE Commission and by Pines, he notes, the appointment never arrived.
Pines, he asserts, has told him he might have been appointed had the governor not been recalled.
The referee has hired the campaign firm of Cerrell Associates Inc. to manage his bid for judicial office, and says he expects his name to appear on a number of campaign slate mailers. He notes, however, that he is handling his own fundraising activities rather than relying on the Cerrell firm.
Zeidler is the youngest of five siblings. His father had a chain of clothing stores and his mother is a cookbook author.
He was student body president at Cal State Northridge and earned his law degree at Loyola. Before becoming a referee he spent six years as an attorney with Dependency Court Legal Services Inc., a organization funded by the court to provide representation for abused and neglected foster children in dependency court and other proceedings.
Though virtually his entire legal career has been spent in a single area of the law, Zeidler says he would not feel limited as a judge.
Dependency cases are “quasi-criminal and quasi-civil,” he notes, giving him a background in both sides of the practice of law. In addition, he says, he has experience with the tasks of managing a court calendar and a court staff that face a judge.
Shook had spent more than any other candidate in any of the nine judicial races through Jan. 17—$102,001. But he had raised only $77,500, meaning his campaign ended the reporting period more than $24,000 in debt, and most of the funds he reported raising came in the form of loans from his wife.
Shook’s ballot statement notes his legal pedigree. His father, Judge John P. Shook, was appointed a Superior Court judge by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1985 after two years as a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge.
His mother is also a lawyer, and Michael Shook met his wife—who does not practice law—while both were in law school.
But “Attorney at Law” has not historically proven to be a ballot designation that attracts a large proportion of the many voters who arrive at the polls on election day undecided about judicial races, and those who have done their homework ahead of time may be put off by the fact Shook was rated “not qualified” by the County Bar.
Shook says he plans to rely on people who have come to know him during his decade of practice on his own, many of them in the South Bay where he lives and works, to come out and swell his vote total on election day.
“I’m going after the people that I’ve done work for in the past,” he says. “They want to have someone they trust up there and that would be me.”
“I’m shocked by how many people I know.”
Shook’s Web site, at www.shook4judge.com, shows the touch of a design expert, and invites visitors to a $100-per-person Feb. 28 dance party at the Los Angeles Yacht Club in San Pedro.
Sailing, Shook notes, is a passion, adding that he has served on the Yacht Club board for several years.
Shook says his law practice consists of handling about 140 family law and about 40 criminal defense cases each year. He points out that he has employed other lawyers to help with the practice in the past, though he does not now.
His mother’s probate practice—she does wills and probate—is located in the same building. She started her law training while Shook was in high school, he recalls.
He graduated from Loyola Marymount as an English major and earned his law degree from Western State College of Law in Fullerton. He worked briefly as an associate at firms in Orange and San Juan Capistrano before opening up his own practice.
Shook says his volunteer work as a temporary judge, hearing small claims and traffic matters in Inglewood, Long Beach, San Pedro, Torrance and the downtown courts, helped whet his appetite for a judicial position and gave him experience he believes sets him apart from some of the others in the race.
When he learned that Shumsky would not be running for reelection, he explains, “the opportunity suddenly presented itself, and voila, here I am.”
Shook says he made no effort to react to the shifting landscape of possible prosecutorial opponents by choosing a race in which he might face fewer or weaker opponents. Instead, he says, he “picked one and stuck with it.”
Shook declines to state his political party affiliation, describing himself as a “moderate,” and says he has given no thought to whether he might apply for a judgeship if he is not elected.
“I’m going to keep my eye on this ball for a while before I make any new plans,” Shook declares.
His work as a temporary judge has taught him to be patient and to give litigants a chance to “tell their story,” he says, though he notes there is a “fine balance” to be struck between that value and the need to move a busy calendar forward.
“You can’t have open mike night,” he asserts.
His wife handles the firm finances, coming in to the office a couple of afternoons each week, but spends the rest of her time taking care of their 14-month-old daughter.
“She’s got the hard job,” Shook says.
Henry, who holds the third of the “well qualified” ratings in the race, is in his second judicial campaign. In 1992 he ran against Judge Joyce Karlin, who had provoked a storm of criticism by sentencing a Korean American woman to probation after she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a black teenager the woman claimed she believed was shoplifting.
Henry and two other opponents failed to force Karlin into a runoff.
He came close to running for the Pasadena Municipal Court in 1982, dropping out when then-Gov. Jerry Brown made an appointment on the final day for filing, and recently sought an appointment from Davis, though the JNE Commission never interviewed him, he notes.
Henry says he also sought a municipal court appointment from Brown without success.
Henry stresses that he has been a lawyer for far longer than any of his opponents. Lopez was admitted to practice in 1986, but none of the other candidates in the race has been a lawyer for as much as 15 years.
Henry has 30 years of practice behind him, all of it with the Attorney General’s Office.
He also notes that he has the backing of Shumsky, the judge the winner of the election would replace.
The deputy attorney general was rated “qualified” by the County Bar in the Karlin race, and he had to fight to get the rating he enjoys this time around. The bar panel initially rated him “qualified” again, and Henry vociferously complained that the members cited little beyond his lack of extensive jury trial experience as a basis for that rating.
Under that standard, he argued, deputy attorneys general—who rarely accumulate extensive trial experience—would never qualify for the panel’s highest rating.
Whether the members of the committee found that argument convincing is impossible to say, but they did rate Henry “well qualified” after hearing his appeal.
Henry says he remains unconvinced that the panel’s opinions should count for much.
“You can take those ratings and dump them in the trash can,” he told an audience at a Feb. 15 forum for judicial candidates sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Henry has also sued county officials, challenging the $65,000 fee charged for having a candidate statement included in the materials sent to voters. The fee is discriminatory because state law gives county officials discretion whether to charge it or not, his suit contends.
A federal judge rejected the argument, but Henry says he plans to appeal.
Death Penalty Cases
Henry is a lifelong Democrat who supported Jesse Jackson for president in 1984, but he has spent a good part of his career with the Attorney General’s Office defending sentences of death before the state Supreme Court. Then-Attorney General Dan Lungren, a Republican, made him assistant capital case coordinator for the Los Angeles office in 1992, and he held that position until 2001.
At the League of Women Voters forum, Henry asserted that there are few areas of the law he has not had to learn in 30 years as a deputy attorney general.
“It’s very hard to escape my expertise,” he declared.
An Oklahoma native, Henry first came to California at age 14 on a visit to his grandmother and found he liked it here. He graduated from Fremont High School and attended college at Purdue University and UC Berkeley, transferring to Berkeley in 1967 at the height of radical student political activity there.
His law degree was earned at Harvard.
He twice ran for political office, losing to incumbent Rep. Carlos Moorhead, R-Glendale, in a 1978 congressional race and unsuccessfully challenging Assemblyman Bill Ivers, R-Pasadena, in 1980.
Though Henry reported raising and spending only $47 through Jan. 17, he says he plans to spend up to $20,000 in his campaign, most of it to appear on slate mailers.
Lopez, a prosecutor for the past 14 years, spent four years before that as a deputy public defender. He says he has done at least 100 jury trials, most of them involving serious and violent felonies.
Like his colleague Marc Debbaudt, who is among three candidates seeking to unseat Judge Dan Oki, Lopez worked in the Abolish Chronic Truancy Division, which was established under District Attorney Gil Garcetti and largely dismantled by Cooley. Also like Debbaudt, he says the program, which was based on the observation that most criminal defendants share the experience of school failure and sought to address that as a root cause of violent crime, was one of the most effective programs the office has ever had.
His Web site at www.dalopez4judge.com lists endorsements from Garcetti, the Latino Prosecutors Association, and Superior Court Judges Leslie E. Brown, Michael Carter, Janice Croft, Marc C. Kim, Teri Schwartz, and Terry Smerling.
Lopez also voices dissatisfaction with the LACBA judicial rating process. His appeal to get his rating raised from “qualified” to “well qualified” was unsuccessful.
He says he was never given specific reasons for the lower rating, and complains that the letters the County Bar sent to the lawyers he named as references initially indicated he was running against Judge David Wesley, not for an open seat.
Though corrected letters were sent out, he says, he expresses doubt that the damage done by giving recipients the impression he was challenging an incumbent could be easily undone.
“People are going to be less than enthusiastic” if they believe a candidate is challenging a sitting judge, Lopez suggests, adding that those who had already provided information might have been hesitant to revise their remarks upon discovering the truth.
Lopez is making his first bid for a judicial position, though he says he considered a run in the early 1990s and had planned to—but did not—submit an application for appointment to Davis.
His will be a “grass roots” campaign, Lopez says, explaining he plans to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 and hopes to appear on some slate mailers. His fundraising reports through Jan. 17 showed he had raised $2,284 and spend $2,074.
Lopez grew up in La Puente, attending Bassett High School, and went to UC Riverside after the learning about the institution through its recruiting efforts at Bassett. He joined the Riverside debating team and became interested in a law, suspecting “that it might be a good career,” he says.
The fifth of 12 children, Lopez has siblings who work as a Department of Motor Vehicles investigator, a corrections officer, and a parole agent. The family also includes three sets of twins.
Renetzky, like Henry, is a veteran of judicial politics, having run two years ago for the seat then held by Judge Richard Spann. Spann had been an Antelope Municipal Court judge before court unification, and the race attracted a pair of candidates with ties to the desert community.
Renetzky made it into a runoff but lost to Lancaster-based Deputy District Attorney Richard Naranjo.
Renetzky’s father, Workers’ Compensation Judge Donald Renetzky, was also a candidate for an open seat that year.
Renetzky has been as a deputy district attorney since 1991, and at the time of the campaign two years ago had just over the minimum 10-year law practice requirement to become a judge. Though he gave an interview to the MetNews then, he declined to do so this year, and did not return a call Thursday seeking comment on the campaign.
In the 2002 campaign he stressed his work with the Community Oriented Multi-Agency Narcotic Enforcement Team, a task force that gave him the opportunity to practice in courthouses all over the county.
“I’ve really seen the county,” he said then. “I’ve had the opportunity to see hundreds of judges and hundreds of courtrooms.”
He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, then went to college at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He attended USC Law School, interned at the District Attorney’s Office, and never left.
In answers to questions submitted this year by the League of Women Voters for the group’s Web site, smartvoter.org, Renetzky cited his trial experience, saying he has prosecuted “close to 100 jury trials” and “over 100 court trials.”
He also lectures to local college students about the legal system, the deputy district attorney pointed out in the materials he submitted.
As of Jan. 17, Renetzky reported raising $41,600, most of it in family loans, but spending only $2,654.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company