Thursday, June 8, 2006
Bigotry Wins, Janavs Loses
On June 6, 2006, in Los Angeles County, bigotry triumphed.
A respected Los Angeles Superior Court judge with the foreign-sounding name of Dzintra Janavs was defeated by one Lynn Diane Olson, a non-practicing lawyer who’s in the bakery and restaurant business.
Normally, a candidate running with the ballot designation of “Judge of the Superior Court” or a designation similar to that will win, whether deservedly or not. But for Janavs—who was clearly deserving of voter approbation—incumbency proved no shield against a challenge. Why? Her name.
It’s true that Lynn Diane Olson poured money into her campaign, getting on most of the slate mailers (ballyhooing her Democratic Party endorsement on those pieces going to Democratic voters, promising to be a “conservative” judge on one Republican mailer, and deceptively implying the GOP’s endorsement on another.)
But that, alone, did not bring her victory. It cannot be imagined that if she had mounted a challenge to a judge named Smith or Jones, and spent money on slates, the result would have been the same. Absent a substantial issue grabbing voters’ attention, a sitting Superior Court judge simply does not lose (the one exception which anyone can point to being the loss in 1988 by Judge Roberta Ralph, who listed herself as “Incumbent” rather than using her office title).
There was no issue raised as to Janavs’ performance on the bench. There were no issues of any sort raised concerning the judge.
It was not an issue that brought her defeat. It was, plainly and simply, a matter of prejudice, an instinct once driving in our society which supposedly is in check. Olson apparently appreciated the lingering potency of that factor when she chose as her target the judge with the most unusual name of those up for election.
Yes, there are grumblings to be heard among lawyers about Janavs’ curtness. Those grumblings were not transformed by Olson into a campaign issue, so this was not a factor of any conceivable significance in the election outcome. Indeed, voters, in general, were oblivious to the perception of Janavs by lawyers. Moreover, if they had been aware of, and cared about, what the bar thought, they would have seen that the overwhelming consensus among lawyers is that Janavs is brilliant and skilled. Indeed, she attained the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.’s highest candidate rating of “exceptionally well qualified,” while Olson was, appropriately, labeled “not qualified” by LACBA.
Surely, if members of the bar (including those whose membership is on hiatus during judicial service)—and they alone—had been entrusted with the decision as to whether Janavs or Olson should be elected, there can be no doubt that the incumbent would have been retained.
And to whom would such a decision more rationally be entrusted?
In light of the defeat of an exceedingly astute and able judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court by a nobody, the “Bagel Lady” of Manhattan Beach, it is inevitable that some will cry for an end to judicial elections. It is most certainly true that the outcome in this contest shows that the current system does not work. But turning to the federal system of life-time appointments—which breeds arrogance and unaccountability—is not the answer, nor is a “Missouri Plan” approach of retention elections, which affords no incentive for opposition to be raised. There must be an effective means of ridding the courts of incapable members. Contested elections are the only feasible vehicle. The problem is simply that power to select is in the hands of the lay public, with no knowledge of the capacity of candidates.
The best approach, as has been suggested in these pages before, would be to hold elections for judges in tandem with the State Bar Board of Governors elections, enfranchising judges for the purpose of the judicial elections.
Judges and lawyers are those with the knowledge as to which candidates are worthiest, and the most interest in the outcome of the races. The lay electorate is not able to apprise the technical competence of the aspirants for judicial office. They are apt to vote based on recommendations of the judges or lawyers they know; or slate mailers, thinking they contain recommendations of like-minded folks, not realizing candidates buy their way onto those mailers; or based on the sound of candidates’ names, their ballot designations, whim or prejudice.
The decision should be vested in those who care most about the composition of the judiciary and who have the competence to weigh the competing qualifications of candidates.
Any proposed state constitutional amendment to revamp the judicial branch should include a provision to accomplish this.
Too, Business & Professions Code §6006 should be revamped, as proposed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge-Elect Daniel Lowenthal. It is because of a harebrained 1989 amendment to that section that Olson has been eligible to run notwithstanding that she has been on inactive bar status for most of the time since gaining her law license in December 1989.
Sec. 6006 says, in relevant part:
“Those who are or have been enrolled as inactive members at their request are members of the State Bar for purposes of Section 15 of Article VI of the California Constitution.”
Sec. 15 provides:
“A person is ineligible to be a judge of a court of record unless for 10 years immediately preceding selection, the person has been a member of the State Bar or served as a judge of a court of record in this State.”
While on inactive membership, a person may not practice law and is not subject to minimum continuing legal education requirements. It makes no sense to include years of inactive membership in determining if the 10-year requirement is met except for those in certain categories such as subordinate judicial officers, fulltime teachers at law schools, and legislators.
In the 10 years preceding the election, Olson has been an active member of the State Bar for only about two years and four months. Under the statutory definition of “member,” contained in §6006, this does not matter; inactive membership suffices.
Whether a statutory change would do the trick or a constitutional amendment would be necessary, the election of the “bagel lady” points to the need for a revision of the qualifications for office.
Janavs was born in Latvia. She lived there as a child when it was under Russian, then Nazi, domination. As a young teenager, she came with her family to the United States, supposedly the “land of opportunity,” the bastion of equality. Through efforts and competence, she ascended to the bench 1986, and became a highly regarded member of it. She had every reasonable expectation of being kept on the job.
But reward did not come to a judge who deserved it.
The defeat of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs on Tuesday in her bid for reelection is a loss not merely for her, but for all of us. It will deprive us of her services. It will mark Los Angeles County as a hotbed of bigotry.
The majority, whether casting their ballots for Olson based on ignorance, prejudice, or both, will cause the ouster of a judge capable of adjudicating the most complex of writ matters and the supplanting of her by a woman who does not possess a sufficient background in law to handle traffic ticket cases.
Results of balloting in the race for Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 120 are not merely disappointing. They are an outrage.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company