Monday, March 1, 2004
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 111
Challenger Faces Judge Already Seeking Disability Retirement
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Win, lose, or draw, Chesley McKay Jr. is not likely to embark on a second six-year term on the Los Angeles Superior Court.
McKay, who faces a challenge from Department of Industrial Relations attorney Stella Owens-Murrell, has been off the bench due to illness since September and has applied for disability retirement.
If Owens-Murrell wins in the March 2 primary—a runoff could take place only in the event of an exact tie—she will take office in January 2005. If the 53-year-old McKay wins, and his retirement application is granted, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will name his replacement.
McKay, a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who was an Antelope Municipal Court judge before his appointment to the Superior Court by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996, reportedly underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2001. He has not returned calls from the MetNews during this election campaign, and also refused to speak with the newspaper—or to be photographed—in 1996 when he fended off a challenge from Acton lawyer Larry H. Layton to retain his seat on the Antelope court.
Layton is a candidate this year for an open seat.
In endorsing Owens-Murrell a week ago, the Los Angeles Times quoted a statement from the judge as saying “it does not appear that my condition will improve.” McKay was scheduled to return early this month, but did not, and court officials have not been able to provide an anticipated date for him to resume his duties.
Applications for disability retirement require the approval of the Commission on Judicial Performance. A CJP spokesperson said McKay’s application is pending, but declined to provide further details.
McKay was one of eight candidates in this election cycle, and the only incumbent, rated “not qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee. In a departure from past practice, the committee did not specify its reason for giving that rating to individual candidates.
However, the criteria by which the panel stated it evaluates candidates include “[h]ealth problems that affect the ability to serve as a judge.”
The panel tentatively rated Owens-Murell “qualified” based on the recommendation of a subcommittee, and that rating became final when she passed up the opportunity to appeal it to the full committee.
Elevated After Election
McKay, a 1982 graduate of the San Fernando College of Law, was elevated to the Superior Court by Wilson less than three months after turning back the challenge from Layton. He received a rating of “well qualified” from the County Bar panel that year, but never began the term on the Municipal Court to which he had been elected.
Before becoming a deputy district attorney in 1984, he was an associate with the law offices of Elizabeth Kaufman in Northridge, served as corporate counsel for WHB Chan and Co., and worked in the Encino law offices of Edwin S. Saul.
The jurist was criticized by Div. Four of this district’s Court of Appeal in June for giving the appearance of being partial to the prosecution in the trial of a man charged with setting fire to his wife’s home after she obtained a restraining order against him.
The appellate court in People v. Perkins (2003) 109 Cal. App. 4th 1562 ordered a new trial, saying McKay engaged in four instances of prejudicial misconduct that had the cumulative effect of depriving Grail W. Perkins of a fair trial on charges of burglary, arson, making terrorist threats, and violating a domestic violence restraining order.
In the most serious instance of misconduct, Justice Daniel Curry wrote, McKay questioned Perkins about his claim that he did not drive by his wife’s house on the afternoon of the fire, even though he was in the area.
When Perkins testified he did not want to violate the restraining order, McKay responded that “it didn’t bother [him] earlier in the day.” Curry called that comment “a particularly egregious example of bias against appellant and partiality towards the People,” and said McKay was attempting to create an inference that Perkins had not driven by the house because he had set the fire and knew it had burned down.
The justice also faulted McKay for having questioned Perkins extensively about his claim to have been at the courthouse at the time of the fire.
Judges may participate in questioning in order to clarify or expedite proceedings, Curry acknowledged, as long as the questioning does not demean the witness or create an appearance that the case has been prejudged. But McKay crossed over the line because he was “opprobrious” and because he “oppugned appellant’s integrity,” the jurist opined.
The trial judge was “intemperate,” Curry said, “and stepped outside the boundaries of what could be characterized as proper examination of witnesses.”
McKay was a deputy clerk in the Los Angeles Superior Court and the Los Angeles Municipal Court while in law school, and served in the Air Force in Vietnam. During the 1996 campaign, a former colleague, since-retired Deputy District Attorney Herb Lapin, called him a “street fighter” who had “been through the knocks of life.”
Lapin, too, is running for judge this year, as one of three opponents challenging Judge David Wesley.
McKay did not file required fundraising reports for the period ending Jan. 17, and appears to be making no active efforts to win reelection. Neither candidate spent the $65,000 required to have a candidate statement included in materials mailed to voters by county elections officials.
In her campaign materials and in brief comments to the MetNews—she declined a request for a more extensive interview—Owens-Murrell has refrained from directly criticizing her opponent. While the Los Angeles Times said in endorsing her that McKay “should have resigned last fall so that the governor could appoint a qualified replacement,” Owens-Murrell commented tersely:
“I wish him well in his retirement.”
At a forum for judicial candidates last month in West Covina organized by the League of Women Voters, Owens-Murrell did not cite Curry’s criticisms of McKay, though she did call attention to his “not qualified” rating. McKay did not attend the event.
She stressed her experience as a hearing officer with the Department of Industrial Relations and noted that her duties have included “prosecuting uninsured employers and employers who violate the civil and criminal labor laws of the State of California.”
A Palmdale resident, she pointed out that she has served as the legal advisor for the Antelope Valley Human Relations Task Force, a body charged with preventing hate crimes.
She said judges “must be accountable to the public,” and declared:
“It’s time for a change on the bench.”
Her Web site, at www.electstella4judge.com, features the campaign slogan “Ethical and Unbiased” and touts her endorsements from the mayors of Lancaster and Palmdale, several unions, and Assemblyman Jerome Horton, D-Inglewood.
Owens-Murrell grew up in New York City. Her father, she says, was an electrician, but her mother had a college education and she explains that her own ambition to become a lawyer was formed in junior high school.
An early role model, Owens-Murrell says, was U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley of the Southern District of New York, who in 1966 became the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench. Motley had previously been the first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate.
Owens-Murrell graduated in 1970 from City University of New York’s Hunter College, with a major in political science and a minor in history, and earned her law degree at the University of Notre Dame. From 1986 to 1995, she had a law office in Palmdale, specializing in labor and employment litigation.
Before coming to California, Owens-Murrell worked for three years as an attorney for TransWorld Airlines in New York. After coming west in 1977, she worked for six years as industrial relations manager for a Van Nuys firm before being admitted to the State Bar of California in 1983.
She then spent two years as an associate with the downtown firm of Parker, Milliken, Clark, O’Hara & Samuelian before opening her own Palmdale practice.
Her husband is a minister, and Owens-Murrell has served on the California State Bar Committee on Women in the Law, chairing the group in 2001-2002.
Owens-Murrell declines to say how much money she will spend before tomorrow’s vote. Her reports for the period ending Jan. 17 showed contributions and expenditures of slightly over $2,000.
She concedes that a substantial amount of her campaign budget is being spent on her signs, which are noticeable downtown and in some other parts of the county. The candidate rejects the suggestion that the postings may violate any local ordinances.
“I’ve had no indication that they are not legal,” she declares.
Though she appears on the ballot as Stella Owens-Murrell, the signs identify her as Stella Murrell.
She expresses optimism about tomorrow’s outcome, but declines to flatly predict that her superior County Bar rating, the Times endorsement, and her opponent’s apparent intention to give up his seat will be enough to overcome the proven tendency of voters-many of whom may know nothing of the candidates beyond what they see on the ballot-to return incumbent judges to office.
“My chances look pretty good,” she says, “but one never knows until after the election.”
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company