Monday, March 1, 2004
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Superior Court Office No. 29
Field of Six Vies for Coveted Spots in Runoff for Open Seat
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
It’s tied for the largest field of candidates for a Los Angeles Superior Court seat this year.
Six contenders—a deputy attorney general, three deputy district attorneys, a deputy public defender, and a sole practitioner who also operates an unaccredited law school with about a dozen students—are running in tomorrow’s primary to succeed Judge Richard Hubbell.
All believe there will be a runoff. And several have perceived strengths that might get them there.
Deputy Attorney General Gus Gomez has what he and campaign consultant Parke Skelton say is a strong ballot designation, and is the only Hispanic candidate in the race.
Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Gootman—who chose to be listed on the ballot by his official title, rather than as “Criminal Prosecutor” like his colleagues—is the only candidate with a “well qualified” rating from the County Bar and has been endorsed by the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers.
Deputy District Attorney Lori Jones not only has the prosecutor designation, but is also the only woman in the field. The remaining prosecutor, Edward Nison, may be handicapped by his “not qualified” bar rating, lack of endorsements, and decision to bank nearly all of his campaign funds—he has $100,000, mostly in family loans—for a possible November campaign.
Deputy Public Defender C. Edward Mack admits that he has taken on a “large challenge.” His campaign budget—he had only raised about $3,000 when his last spending report was filed—is so small he has to run a “grass-seed,” rather than a grassroots, campaign, he quips.
Larry H. Layton, who reported spending $1.57 on his entire effort, hopes that residual name recognition—he ran for the court two years ago, and sought Antelope Municipal Court seats five times, once as a write-in candidate—will give him a boost.
Some who know Gus Gomez wonder if he is “too nice” to be a judge. The candidate, a Glendale city councilman as well as a lawyer for the state—he has a flexible schedule that allows him to spend one day a week on city business, which he otherwise handles on nights and weekends, he explains—admits to being somewhat reserved.
But that will be an asset, not a liability, on the bench, he insists. His council experience, he says—he was elected in 1999, and has served annual rotations as mayor and as chairman of the city’s redevelopment agency and housing authority—shows him to be “an effective listener as well as a capable leader.”
He also touts his personal and educational backgrounds, seeking to become one of a handful of immigrants on the bench.
A native of Jalisco, Mexico, his family settled in Hollister, the seat of San Benito County in rural Northern California, when he was 11. His father worked in a local factory for awhile, but was laid off, so the family worked in canneries and picked fruits and vegetables in the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys, he says in his campaign biography.
After graduation from San Benito High School, he headed off to Stanford University, where he majored in political science before moving on to the university’s law school.
He started his legal career at a Century City firm in June 1990, but was laid off 15 months later and practiced on his own for several months before joining the local office of the New York firm of Brown & Wood. He left that position, which involved transactional work in the municipal finance area, to become a deputy attorney general in 1993.
He started in criminal appeals and now handles licensing disputes. He was rated “qualified” by the County Bar, which he says was concerned by what he concedes to be his “one weakness,” a lack of jury trial experience.
That weakness, he insists, would be offset by several strengths, including the breadth of his legal experience and his unique perspective having been a city council member. The council, he notes, sits in a quasi-judicial capacity in some matters, such as zoning appeals.
His endorsements include those of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and LA Weekly. He and his wife, Deputy Attorney General Glynda Gomez, have one child.
Gootman, 49, touts himself as the best candidate in the race based on both quality and quantity of legal experience. “I’m the only candidate who has done civil, criminal, and appellate work,” he notes.
He was admitted to practice in 1980, following graduation from Southwestern University School of Law, and started out with a civil litigation firm. But after three years doing a lot of discovery and some municipal court trials, he says, “it was time to move on” to something more active and he accepted a position with the District Attorney’s Office.
He started out in Newhall, then moved through a succession of assignments, including San Fernando, Van Nuys, juvenile court, major narcotics, and appeals. He has also defended two death penalty habeas corpus petitions and is currently assigned to Lancaster.
Among his proudest achievements, he boasts, is a database of more than 30,000 citations on various points of criminal law that he carries around on his laptop.
“I have to know the law,” he says. “There are a lot of very good public defenders and private lawyers.”
But he also talks about the human side of the law, and points to letters that have been written to his superiors thanking him for his compassion towards victims. And he takes great pride, he says, in his relations with courtroom adversaries.
“I’ve learned that the fate of the free world doesn’t depend any one case,” he comments.
His endorsements, besides the Times, include the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Daily Breeze, and several law enforcement groups. He and Nison share the backing of their boss, District Attorney Steve Cooley.
Gootman and his wife live in the Santa Clarita Valley with their two teenage daughters.
Jones, 42, has been a lawyer for 15 years and has spent her entire career in the District Attorney’s Office. She is presently assigned to Compton after having worked downtown and in Whittier, Bellflower, Pomona, Inglewood, Torrance and Lynwood, and in the Hardcore Gang and Family Violence divisions.
She has prosecuted several murder cases.
A graduate of Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law, she was rated “qualified” by the County Bar after an unsuccessful appeal.
Jones, who acknowledges having had to take the bar exam more than once, says she is unfazed. “I know how qualified I am,” she comments.
Jones cites her even-tempered disposition as one of her stronger assets. She would control her courtroom—“I can be strong-willed sometimes” she says—but adds that she “would try very hard not to get into a screaming match with a lawyer.”
A divorced mother of one who lives in the Westchester area, she works with the PTA and says she would like to serve in juvenile court.
Philosophically, she says, she is “pretty law-and-order.” She notes that she grew up in South Central Los Angeles, the daughter of a former soldier who became a career officer with the Los Angeles Unified School District police.
Jones considered a military career herself, she says. She was in Air Force ROTC at Loyola Marymount University, she explains, but decided to pursue an alternative path after failing to secure a pilot slot.
While she expresses satisfaction with her current work—“I love being a D.A., and I’ve been good at it,” she says—Jones hopes to get on the bench as a commissioner if not as a judge. She is on the current list of eligible candidates for commissioner posts, having been ranked No. 29 by the judicial panel that evaluates applicants.
She is the only candidate besides Gomez to be using a professional consultant in the race, having hired Fred Huebscher. The Hermosa Beach-based Huebscher is working for candidates in six judicial races this year.
Nison, 46, is an Ohio native who came west to attend Hastings College of the Law after graduating from Indiana University. He is a member of his office’s Training Division and is using the ballot designation “Criminal Prosecutor/Instructor,” the latter part being a reference to courses he teaches for law enforcement officers.
The officers receive 32 hours credit, he explains, through East Los Angeles College. The school lists him as a faculty member, he points out, though he receives no compensation beyond his county salary.
He expresses some disappointment with the judicial elections process, which he calls “much more political than it should be.” And he take vigorous exception to the County Bar’s determination that after 18 years as a prosecutor, including 30 homicide trials, he is not qualified to sit on the bench.
He attributes the rating to run-ins he had with the judge who presided over the trial of Calvin Broadus, better known as Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the rapper’s ex-bodyguard McKinley Lee.
Prosecutors claimed Broadus told Lee to shoot Philip Woldemariam, 20, at a park in the Palms area of West Los Angeles, as a result of a gang dispute. The defense argued that Lee fired in self-defense after Woldemariam reached for a gun tucked inside his waistband.
The trial, which Nison describes as “not a particularly pleasant experience,” ended with jurors acquitting the defendants of murder and deadlocking, 9-3 in favor of acquittal, on the lesser offense of manslaughter. The manslaughter charges were dismissed after prosecutors said they had no new evidence to present and doubted a jury would convict.
Nison, who prosecuted the case along with fellow deputy Bobby Grace, said he felt that Judge Paul Flynn had developed a “personal animosity” towards him, resulting in a contempt finding.
Flynn fined Nison $200 for continuing to argue after the judge overruled a strenuous objection during cross-examination. “I probably should have shut up,” he says in retrospect, although he says he meant no disrespect and remains convinced the judge allowed inadmissible evidence before the jury.
Visit to Defendant
Flynn also reported him to the State Bar after a detective, acting on Nison’s instructions, went to an apartment looking for a potential witness who was also the subject of an outstanding warrant. As Nison explains it, the detective went to the apartment, where he was surprised to find Broadus, but did not find the witness.
The judge, Nison insists, erroneously viewed the incident as an effort to communicate with the defendant without his attorney present, a violation of the Sixth Amendment. “We didn’t talk to him,” Nison insists.
The State Bar investigated and found no misconduct, he adds.
With respect to the County Bar rating, Nison also notes that he was interviewed by a different subcommittee than the one which interviewed the other candidates in the race, a last-minute departure from normal procedure attributed to the fact that one of the members of the subcommittee which evaluated his opponents included a relative by marriage.
Some months after the Broadus trial, Nison moved from the Hardcore Gang Division to the Environmental Crimes/OSHA Divison, where he prosecuted the company that makes Morton Salt in the death of an employee. Jurors voted 11-1 to convict the company, he explains, but acquitted two managers who were individually charged.
Nison and his wife live in Calabasas and have one child.
Criminal Defense Perspective
Mack, 49, says he hopes to make up in enthusiasm what he lacks in money and endorsements. It’s a serious effort, he says, noting that he resigned as president-elect of the California Association of Black Lawyers to run.
As the only criminal defense attorney running for judge in the county this year, Mack says he brings a different, and needed, perspective to the bench.
After more than 100 criminal jury trials, Mack says, he is convinced that the accused is really presumed guilty. “Nobody is going to admit it,” he declares, “but that’s the way it really is.”
He is not running against the other five candidates, he says, explaining that he has done no research on them, but is running to change a system in which “justice doesn’t always prevail.”
The Jacksonville, Fla. native acknowledges that he didn’t always intend to be a judge, or even a lawyer. His real goal while attending Florida State University, he says, was to produce films.
But he already had a family, and decided that filmmaking was an unrealistic career path for a black man. “This was before Spike Lee,” he points out, so he entered the Air Force and served in Southeast Asia—he was in Thailand while Cambodia and Vietnam were falling to the Communists, he explains—before returning to FSU to finish his degree.
He worked as a chemist for a number of years before deciding on a legal career. He had considered medical school, he explains, “but really didn’t have the stomach for autopsies.”
His defense background, he says, won’t prevent him from treating both sides fairly if he gets a criminal assignment. “I get along with everybody,” he says, although he admits to having had run-ins with some judges.
He started affidaviting Judge John Fisher, he explains, after the two developed “a strained relationship” while Mack was working in Van Nuys. He feels the judge was “extremely unfair” in his handling of some of Mack’s cases.
He expresses admiration for the judge before whom he currently appears, Shari Kreisler Silver, who sits in San Fernando. Silver, he says, uses her discretion fairly and is “willing to give [the defendants] a chance.”
Mack is married and has two grown children, as well as a 7-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Florida.
Layton, 61, has probably lost more judicial elections in Los Angeles County than any other living person. But he remains undeterred.
“I would like to win one time before I die,” Layton told the MetNews during one of his previous campaigns.
After losing five separate bids for the now-defunct Antelope Municipal Court, including a quixotic write-in campaign against Judge William Seelicke in 1994, he ran his first countywide race two years ago. He was one of three candidates for the seat won by Richard Naranjo, finishing last in the primary.
The County Bar rated him “qualified” this time around, as it did in his last two efforts. He had previously been rated “not qualified” three times—he was not rated during the write-in campaign—and had accused the panel of being biased against him because he is a Christian evangelist with strong anti-abortion views.
He made his first bid in 1994, seeking a seat won by Judge Pamela Rogers, who has since taken disability retirement. Layton, who used religious symbols on his business cards and letterhead at the time, was listed on the ballot as an “Attorney/Evangelist.”
Layton secured his law degree from Glendale University College of Law and was admitted to practice in 1975. From 1980-87, Layton frequently handled small claims matters in the San Fernando Courthouse, sitting as a pro tem, and for a time operated a sidewalk stand across the street from that courthouse at which he gave out evangelical tracts.
He and his wife in 1987 left their home in Sylmar—”to get out of the crime,” he once explained— and purchased a 10-acre ranch in Acton, where he established his law school, which generally has between six and 12 students at any given time.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company