Thursday, February 26, 2004
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 67
Judge, Who Beat Incumbent to Win Seat on Bench, Faces Second Challenge
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
How difficult is it to defeat an incumbent judge?
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard W. Van Dusen knows it can be done. In 1986 Van Dusen challenged and beat Judge Juventino B. Casas to win a seat on the Rio Hondo Municipal Court.
This year Van Dusen, who became a Superior Court judge upon court unification in 2000, himself faces an election challenge for the second time. In 1992 he fended off a bid by a former court commissioner to unseat him as a Rio Hondo judge.
Van Dusen, who declined to speak with the MetNews during this election cycle, is no stranger to controversy.
In 1990 the judge allowed attorneys for an abortion protestor to present evidence that the defendant’s attempt to block the entrance to an El Monte family planning clinic was necessary to prevent the murder of fetuses, and then sought to bar a retrial after the jury deadlocked 11-1 for conviction. The Superior Court’s Appellate Department ruled that was an abuse of discretion, and the Court of Appeal (in a different case) subsequently rejected such use of the “necessity” defense.
In the wake of his rulings, the District Attorney’s Office began filing blanket affidavits of prejudice against Van Dusen, preventing him from hearing criminal matters.
Prosecutors had previously used the same tactic to prevent Van Dusen from hearing domestic violence cases, contending he made “inappropriate” remarks about victims in court.
His conduct on the bench was an issue in the 1992 campaign, in which he defeated former Rio Hondo Municipal Court Commissioner William Jacobson. Van Dusen claimed Jacobson challenged him only because Van Dusen played a leading role in forcing the commissioner to resign his post.
Though none of his colleagues on the Rio Hondo court endorsed his reelection bid that year, and one backed Jacobson, Van Dusen won easily with over 65 percent of the vote.
In this election cycle a challenger to Van Dusen emerged after the judge was identified as one of five “bad” judges in an ad placed in a legal newspaper by Deputy District Attorney Steven Ipsen, the head of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys.
The ad encouraged candidates to file against one of the five and then contact the ADDA for support. It declared that prosecutors who responded to a poll “strongly oppose” Van Dusen and Judges Dan Oki and David Wesley, and “oppose” Judges Gilbert Lopez and William Ryan.
Oki and Wesley each drew multiple opponents in Tuesday’s primary. No one filed to run against Lopez or Ryan.
Opponent Saw Ad
Van Dusen’s opponent, civil litigator Daniel K. Dik, says he decided to run against the judge after seeing the ad and reading unfavorable comments about Van Dusen by attorneys in a newspaper profile.
The 1990 profile quoted unidentified “private attorneys who know Van Dusen well” as saying he has a habit of “setting ‘traps’ for inexperienced attorneys,” and asserted that “[m]ore than a half-dozen deputy district attorneys contacted said the judge’s rulings were inconsistent and resulted in many of his decisions being overturned on appeal.”
Dik says he has never himself appeared before Van Dusen, but asserts that his review of two appellate decisions reversing the judge’s rulings has led to him question Van Dusen’s competence.
The cases reflect “very simple procedural errors” that should not have been made by an experienced judge, Dik says.
In City of El Monte v. Superior Court (1994) 29 Cal. App. 4th 272, Van Dusen, sitting on assignment in Superior Court, impaneled a second jury to consider punitive damages evidence after the first jury was discharged. Though Van Dusen presided at trial, another judge took the verdict and discharged the jury when the plaintiff’s lawyer neglected to point out that the issue of punitive damages remained to be tried.
The Court of Appeal majority ruled Van Dusen abused his discretion in convening a second panel in an attempt to rectify the error, which it characterized as an “oversight resulting from counsel’s euphoria created by the favorable jury verdict.” A dissenting justice, however, said the procedure was proper, arguing that the defense waived any right to have the same jury hear the punitive damages evidence when it failed to object to the discharge.
In Issa v. Alzammar (1995) 38 Cal.App.4th Supp. 1, the Appellate Department ruled that Van Dusen, in the Rio Hondo court, improperly ordered a small claims complaint and judgment amended after trial de novo in Superior Court to name the defendant as an individual rather than as a corporation. Only the Superior Court could have ordered the change, the Appellate Department said.
Van Dusen, Dik charges, has “become a bit too comfortable in his position.” The challenger’s Web site, at dik4judge.org, promises “no games, just justice” if he is elected to the bench.
Both Dik and Van Dusen were rated “qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee, which also hands out ratings of “well qualified” and “not qualified.” Though ratings less than “well qualified” can be appealed, neither Dik nor Van Dusen chose to do so.
Van Dusen, 69, has been endorsed by the Los Angeles Times, which cited the jurist’s 17 years of service in the El Monte courthouse and called him a “better choice than the unimpressive civil attorney who has challenged him.”
Dik, 44, says his lack of trial experience probably prevented him from winning a higher rating from the County Bar panel. He started his legal career as a transactional attorney with McKenna, Connor & Cuneo, which later became McKenna & Fitting, he notes.
When that firm went out of business he switched to litigation, working with O’Flaherty & Belgum and its subsequent permutations before joining Century City-based Fonda, Hilberman and Fraser—now Fonda & Fraser—in 2001.
Trials at the insurance defense firm are handled by the most senior attorneys, Dik points out. But he says he has handled over 200 summary judgment motions, about 150 of them successful.
He also cites his five years of service as a volunteer temporary judge, hearing small claims and traffic matters, often at the downtown Metropolitan Courthouse.
“I can handle a high volume calendar,” he asserts.
Dik calls himself a “product of the working class,” noting that he is the son of a truck driver and a nurse and his grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. He attended schools in Long Beach and earned a degree in microbiology from Cal State Long Beach, working for several years as a licensed medical laboratory technologist at Los Angeles County-Harbor UCLA Medical Center and Long Beach Community Hospital before deciding to attend law school at USC.
Dik concedes it is “a daunting thing to run countywide.” But he says he plans to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 by election day and is convinced he can beat Van Dusen.
“If I didn’t think it was a possibility, I wouldn’t be spending so much of my own money taking a crack at it,” he comments.
Fundraising reports for the period ending Jan. 17 showed Dik had by then raised and spent under $2,000, while Van Dusen reported raising and spending about $10,500.
Much of his effort, Dik says, will be concentrated on building support via signs and email through his contacts in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He is a deacon in the Alhambra church and served from 1993 to 1999 on the Executive Committee of the Southern California Conference of Seventh Day Adventists.
He also touts his endorsement from Crime Victims United of California.
Van Dusen was born in Visalia but grew up in Van Nuys. His father owned Van Dusen Insurance Co., which the judge has said was at one time the largest insurance brokerage house in California.
He received his undergraduate degree from Chapman College (now Chapman University) in 1968, and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California two years later.
But rather than going into the family business, Van Dusen told the MetNews during the 1992 campaign, he really wanted to be a lawyer “for the same reason as everyone else my age—I watched Perry Mason on TV, and I thought that was neat.”
He enrolled at Southwestern University School of Law, graduating in 1975 and joining the District Attorney’s Office, where he handled cases ranging from minor trespassing to murder.
He left the office in 1979, after his father’s death, to run the family business. But after a year of that, he found someone else to run—and eventually buy—the business. He then went into private practice with several friends in a small El Monte firm that became known as Moseley, Leech & Van Dusen.
After he won the 1986 election against Casas, Van Dusen was hired as a commissioner for the Rio Hondo Court to serve for the six months until he took office.
His consultant in this year’s campaign, Fred Heubscher, says the judge was “delighted” to receive the Times endorsement. But Heubscher calls the backing of that newspaper and others “icing on the cake,” saying he feels sure that voters would return Van Dusen to office in any event.
“I’m confident that Judge Van Dusen will be re-elected,” Heubscher says.
The consultant declines to estimate how much the judge will spend by Tuesday, though he says most of the funds will be used to purchase spots on election slate mailings.
“He’s spending sufficient funds to ensure that he’ll be re-elected,” Heubscher declares.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company