Tuesday, February 24, 2004
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 69
Diverse Field of Five Includes First to Announce Candidacy for Open Seat
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
If the early bird really does catch the worm, Judith L. Meyer is going to be a Superior Court judge.
Meyer, a deputy district attorney who served on the County Bar’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee during the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, began laying plans to run for the court not long after the 2002 elections were concluded.
She began raising money in the early part of last year, and held a wide lead in fundraising when the most recent reports were filed.
She was also seeking endorsements before any of her opponents had entered the race. She succeeded in gaining several, including those of her boss, District Attorney Steve Cooley, and Sheriff Lee Baca.
She was the first non-incumbent to announce plans to run for the court. She sounded out several judges before Judge James Wright, who sits in Long Beach—where Meyer lives—told her he wasn’t running, then staked out a bid for his seat.
There are 16 deputy district attorneys running for judge this year, and several cited Meyer’s early efforts as a reason for choosing other races. Ultimately, only one of them got into the contest for Wright’s seat.
Carol Najera, who was one of the prosecutors in the Menendez brothers murder case, acknowledges that the comparative lateness of her entry has hurt. She cites a letter she received from Cooley, who told her that the only reason he couldn’t support her was because he had already committed to Meyer, and said he would back her for an appointment if she applies.
Meyer was similarly able to win an early endorsement from the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, even though Najera’s husband has been a deputy sheriff for nearly 30 years.
The other candidates in the race are Superior Court Commissioner Donna Groman—who boasts the coveted endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, along with those of dozens of other judicial officers—Department of Industrial Relations attorney P. Michael Erwin, running as “Criminal Prosecutor,” and civil attorney Mitchell Roth.
Meyer, 37, is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and Pepperdine University College of Law. She worked for the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in Los Angeles as an extern while in law school, then became a Ventura County deputy district attorney after being admitted in 1993.
A San Fernando Valley resident at the time, Meyer explains, she took the Ventura job because she wanted to be a prosecutor and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office had a hiring freeze at the time. But three months after taking the job, she met Steve Meyer, an engineer from Orange County, and later took the Los Angeles job in order to cut down on the distance between them.
They were married three years ago and live in Long Beach, part-way between their respective workplaces.
To make the move east, she explains, she had to take an opening on the family support side of the District Attorney’s Office, doing civil work that has now been transferred by state law to an independent county department. She did that work for three years, then moved to the criminal side of family support for two years.
Forcing recalcitrant fathers to support their families, and to reimburse the taxpayers for welfare payments, is generally not thought of as a choice assignment. But Meyer touts it as a qualification for the bench, since it gave her a civil and criminal background.
She had to learn family law, along with how to enforce civil judgments. “Writs, liens, I know how all this stuff works,” she says.
She eventually moved to juvenile court, and has spent the last several years at the Torrance courthouse as part of the Victim Impact Program, a special unit that handles adult and child sexual assault, family violence, stalking, elder abuse, and other serious felonies. She also teaches nights at Pacific Coast University School of Law in Long Beach.
Meyer has been rated “well qualified” by the County Bar panel—as has Groman—and been endorsed by the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Daily Breeze, major newspapers serving the areas where she lives and works. She also has the backing of several law enforcement organizations, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League, Los Angeles Police Command Officers Association, Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association, and local police unions in Gardena, Hermosa Beach, Inglewood, Redondo Beach and Torrance.
She also points with pride to the endorsement of the local firefighters’ union, noting that she worked as an emergency medical technician in Santa Barbara during her last two years as an undergraduate.
Meyer acknowledges that regardless of all the work she has put in, the final say rests with the voters. But there will be a consolation if it doesn’t work out.
“If I lose, I get to be a deputy district attorney, and I absolutely love my job,” she comments.
Most observers think that her main competition in the race comes from Groman and Najera.
Groman, 48, has been the most active of Meyer’s opponents. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native—she came to California after graduating from American University’s law school in 1979—had spent around $57,000, most of it on slate mail, at the close of the reporting period Jan. 17 in an effort to blunt whatever advantage Meyer has as a result of being the only candidate in the race to pay the $65,000 needed to purchase a candidate statement.
A Superior Court referee from 1997 to 1999, and a commissioner since then, she decided to run after seeking a judicial appointment from former Gov. Gray Davis.
While she professes to “admire [Meyer] for her motivation,” Groman points out that Meyer has been a lawyer for less than half the time Groman has been in the profession. None of the other candidates, Groman adds, has judicial experience and none has the diversity of practice experience that she does.
Groman points out that as a practitioner from 1980 to 1997, she did family law, probate, civil litigation, and criminal and civil appeals. She began as a sole practitioner, left that practice to become a supervising attorney at Dependency Court Legal Services in 1990, and started a partnership with Mitchell Beckloff, now a fellow commissioner, in 1994.
Having “hundreds of trials” behind her, she says, she is currently assigned to the Airport Courthouse. She acknowledges that she “needed to leave” a previous assignment at Inglewood Juvenile Court after deputy district attorneys there decided they would no longer stipulate to her hearing their cases.
That was a result, she says, of prosecutors who were unwilling to adapt to the stricter speedy trial limits of juvenile law.
The Welfare and Institutions Code, she explains, requires that hearings be held within specified times, and does not include a 10-day “trailing period” like the one in the Penal Code. The commissioner also acknowledges that she was somewhat rigid in her definition of “good cause” for a continuance.
That rigidity had its purpose, she insists. It is wrong for parents to have to miss work or for children to miss school because lawyers cannot be ready on time, she says, adding that she has held prosecutors and defense lawyers to the same standard.
At no time, she adds, did the District Attorney’s Office bring a writ petition or an appeal challenging her application of the law. She also notes that in her current assignment handling the master misdemeanor calendar at the Airport Courthouse, she conducts sentencings and other contested criminal proceedings, and has never had a prosecutor decline to stipulate to her doing so.
She further points out that Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash, former Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Terry Friedman, and her current supervising judge, James Brandlin, are supporting her.
Groman has been endorsed for her position by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and a number of party-affiliated groups and elected officials. While the office, and her campaign, are nonpartisan, she says, it is only logical that as a Democrat, she can obtain Democratic endorsements.
She was not all that political before she got on the bench, she explains. But her pro bono work, and her experience as a dependency court attorney and later a juvenile court bench officer, are strong selling points to Democratic activists, she explains.
Groman professes an unusual ambition if she becomes a judge—she says she wants to be assigned to juvenile court “forever.” It is a great assignment, she says, because “every day you help people, and you get a decent salary for it.”
Her interest in children, she adds, is personal as well as professional—she and her domestic partner are raising Groman’s teenage nephew, for whom they were appointed guardians by the court.
Najera, 43, was the subject of the most unusual event of the campaign, a decision by the County Bar panel to downgrade her rating to “not qualified” after she appealed a tentative rating of “qualified.”
In her 18 years as a prosecutor, she has found herself attached to a number of public controversies. While she and fellow prosecutor David Conn succeeded in convicting Lyle and Erik Menendez of the murders of their parents after an earlier trial ended in a hung jury, they also managed to become defendants in a civil rights action that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Attorney Paul Gabbert, who represented a witness in the case, claimed that Conn and Najera, along with a homicide detective, violated his right to practice law by causing him to be detained during the execution of a warrant for the search of his briefcase. As a result, he said, he was unable to be present outside the grand jury room so that his client could consult him during breaks in her testimony.
The nation’s highest court ruled that there had been no constitutional violation, reversing a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Gabbert.
Najera is also a defendant in a pending suit by Richard Ceballos, a fellow prosecutor who claims he was retaliated against after he alleged that sheriff’s deputies made up information to obtain a search warrant in an auto-parts theft case.
Najera, who was the assistant head deputy in Pomona at the time, and her superior, Frank Sunstedt, “set aside their ethical obligations to satisfy a request for prosecution made by Sheriff’s officers,” Ceballos told LA Weekly in a December 2000 interview.
Najera denies that Ceballos was retaliated against, emphatically denies having attempted to dissuade him from testifying at a suppression hearing in the case, and says that Ceballos should have come to her with his suspicions of misconduct when they first arose, rather than bringing the issue up months later.
The LA Weekly article, interestingly, quotes criminal defense attorney Gigi Gordon as saying the District Attorney’s Office should have turned Ceballos’ internal memos over to the defense lawyers as Brady material. Gordon—who also tangled with Najera in a court dispute over destruction of closed files that the defense bar claimed might contain evidence of police misconduct—is a vice chair of the County Bar evaluations panel and her husband, defense attorney Andrew Stein, is also on the committee.
Those controversies, Najera said, are part of being a prosecutor in cutting-edge cases, and being an administrator. She acknowledges that she has had disputes with the defense bar as a result of being an aggressive, “high-energy” prosecutor.
Najera majored in journalism at USC before deciding on law school, also at USC. She joined the District Attorney’s Office in 1985.
One of her early assignments was to since-retired Judge Joseph Farina’s courtroom in Bellflower, where she met her husband, who was the bailiff. They were married in 1988 and have a 6-year-old daughter.
She had been thinking about a judicial career for awhile, she says, and applied for an appointment from Davis. Friends, including Judge Lauren Weis Birnstein, told her that as a Latina and a prosecutor, she would make a formidable candidate in a judicial election.
Political consultant Fred Huebscher, who does not have a client in the race, agrees. Despite her bar rating, dearth of endorsements, and limited spending, he says, he “would be extremely surprised if Najera doesn’t make a runoff.”
Triple Threat Candidate
Women, prosecutors, and candidates with Spanish surnames, he notes, have been doing very well as judicial candidates in the last few election cycles. Najera, he points out, is the only judicial candidate in the county this year who fits into all three of those categories.
Erwin, 49, declined to be interviewed or photographed for this article. But in an earlier interview, he said he would be an asset to the bench because there are few judges with blue-collar backgrounds.
“I know how to deal with professionals,” he says. “I can relate to blue collar people and treat everyone with respect.”
The father of four says he worked in a factory and drove a beverage truck before he suffered a back injury that led him to paralegal school, which he paid for with workers’ compensation rehabilitation benefits.
“I had to do hard work for a living,” he explains, after his mother died when he was 18 years old. He worked as a non-lawyer representative for injured workers in workers’ compensation proceedings before graduating from University of West Los Angeles School of Law, which he was able to attend despite his lack of an undergraduate degree.
He was admitted to practice in 1993. He is listed on the ballot as a “Criminal Prosecutor,” which he contends is a valid designation because members of the DIR Legal Unit are authorized to prosecute criminal violations of the Labor Code, although it normally brings civil enforcement proceedings instead.
Sources said Erwin has never actually prosecuted a criminal case, and the candidate did not respond to a MetNews e-mail message inquiring as to whether he had.
Erwin was rated “not qualified” by the County Bar. In an e-mail message, he called the group “elitist” and added: “I truly hope they are not too embarrassed when they are proved dead wrong.”
Roth, 53, was also rated “not qualified.” He argues that he should be elected to the seat because the bench is already packed with ex-prosecutors, and claims he brings needed perspective as an experienced civil trial lawyer.
He has difficulty, however, naming judges whom he has appeared in front of in recent years. He admits to having tried only three contested matters, including arbitrations, in the past year, and his resume shows that he was out of practice working in non-law-related business ventures for several years during the time he has been a member of the State Bar.
Roth is a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law in New York and taught at the University of La Verne School of Law from 1988 to 1990.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company