Tuesday, April 1, 2008
James N. Bianco
Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 125
The contest between Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner James Bianco and private practitioner William Daniel Johnson—listed on the ballot as “Bill Johnson”—is a crucial one. Should Johnson prevail, it would again call into question the soundness of our judicial election process.
Two years ago, a non-practicing lawyer who ran a bakery—dubbed the “Bagel Lady”—trounced a highly regarded 20-year veteran of the court. Johnson, a lawyer/rancher able to devote substantial monetary resources to his campaign, just might take the prize in the June 3 election through spending. That would put on the bench a man not only devoid of qualifications for judicial service but one possessed of extremist views and highly questionable judgment.
FIRST A LOOK AT BIANCO, age 44. He was elected by the judges as a commissioner in May, 2005. So far as the members of the bench are concerned, he’s doing a fine job. In fact, his latest performance evaluation, by Criminal Courts Supervising Judge Steven R. Van Sicklen, gives him high marks in all categories and characterizes him as “an outstanding example of an ideal bench officer.”
Yet, Bianco has managed to antagonize both the Office of District Attorney and Office of Public Defender.
Word from the DA’s Office is that Bianco is “one of the worst to run the arraignment court” (which he did for 16 months); is prone to do things the way he wants to do them without regard to what the law says; and “caters to the private bar.” It’s speculated from the prosecutors’ quarters: “He might not fully appreciate how bad his reputation is.”
From the PD’s Office comes the description of Bianco as “immature, very self-centered.” Following what it viewed as a series of missteps by Bianco, that office recently stopped stipulating to his presiding over misdemeanor trials.
To his credit, Bianco wanted to sit down with representatives of the Public Defender’s Office and talk things out. To her discredit, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo, who presides over the misdemeanor master calendar downtown, ruled that out, shifting Bianco to an assignment where he would handle only preliminary hearings.
Bianco expresses a commitment to following the law and remedying whatever problems have led to negative perceptions of him. We have a strong hope, even an instinctive expectation, that there will be adjustments in the approaches he takes.
Ideally, of course, Bianco would not ascend to a judgeship until that clearly had been accomplished. But the reality is that he is a candidate now, and voters must either grant a judgeship to this commissioner who might not yet be quite ready for the higher post…or to a lawyer whose traits are such that he’ll predictably never be fit for it.
On the positive side: Bianco, who was one out of about 170 applicants for a commissionership in 2005, placed number 9 out of the 35 who made it to the eligibility list; he had experience both as a civil practitioner (at the outset of his career) and in the criminal field as a prosecutor for the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office and private defense attorney; and he has been a visible member of the State Bar for more than 20 years. More than 200 judicial officers have endorsed him. He is personable, candid, articulate, and bright.
Van Sicklen dubs him an “ideal bench officer.” He isn’t. But he does have the capacity to develop into one.
AND THEN THERE’S JOHNSON. Ask around about him. It’s unlikely you’ll find anyone who has encountered him.
Although he graduated from the law school at Columbia and has been a member of the State Bar of California for 27 years, he has not made a mark in the local legal community. (His undergraduate degree was in Japanese, and it would appear his activities are in the international commercial arena…activities that would not seemingly provide a background relevant to controversies commonly resolved in the Los Angeles Superior Court.)
Certainly, Johnson, 53, is not well known in Arizona, where he became a bar member in 2006. That same year, he sought the Democratic nomination for Congress from the Tucson area, with wonderment being expressed that a lawyer was running there whose office was in downtown Los Angeles. He and his wife have resided on a 78-acre ranch in La Canada Flintridge for the past 20 years.
Johnson spent $188,000 on his long-shot campaign effort in Arizona. In a field of six candidates, he came in fifth, garnering 2.8 percent of the vote (1,768 ballots for him out of 61,409 cast).
Johnson’s theme in that campaign was that there must be a clamp-down on illegal immigration. Given the current financial toll on public resources in the form of a flow of benefits to persons trespassorily present in the U.S., we cannot dispute the legitimacy of heightened efforts to deter unlawful entry into this nation. While the intrusions happen to be from the south, the need for deterrence would exist to the same extent were persons sneaking into this nation en masse from the north.
While blocking unauthorized entries into the U.S. is a goal widely supported, Johnson’s platform—which included a call to “fine and imprison persons who hire illegal aliens”—was of the extremist variety, envisioning fences and federal troops. He boasted on his campaign website that he “is involved with American Democrats for a Secure Border and is a major contributor to the Minuteman Project.” The former group is one set up by Russell Dove, Johnson’s campaign manager—the extent of whose anti-immigrant fervor is reflected by his attention-grabbing stunt in April, 2006, of publicly burning the Mexican flag.
One might readily suspect, and rather strongly, that Johnson’s association with a man who engaged in burning the flag of the United Mexican States betrays an anti-Hispanic bent.
Any conceivable doubt as to the accuracy of such a perception is removed when consideration is lent a revelation by Robert Greene, former associate editor of this newspaper. Greene, now an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, discloses in a March 28 blog on his newspaper’s website that Johnson was active in the successful effort to collect signatures on petitions to force the names of six unchallenged Latino judges to go on the primary-election ballot. That renders them vulnerable to write-in campaigns.
We hardly regard Judges Daniel P. Ramirez, Juan Carlos Dominguez, Michael Villalobos, Hector M. Guzman, Daniel S. Lopez, or Jose Sandoval as being in serious jeopardy of losing their posts by virtue of the threatened write-in efforts, spearheaded by a Filipino minister. No judge in the history of this county has been felled through a write-in campaign. It is inconceivable that any such crusade could prevail absent an issue, and none is presented.
While the current endeavor may be dismissed as silly and infantile, the participation in it by Johnson is significant. His complicity cannot realistically be regarded, in light of all circumstances, as other than a manifestation of ethnic bias.
Last year, Johnson switched his allegiance to the GOP. The reason was the presidential candidacy of Republican congressman Ron Paul of Texas. “This is the first politician I can truly support, ever,” Johnson is quoted in the Oct. 15, 2007 edition of the Washington Post as saying.
Although Paul’s bid for delegates fizzled, devotees of the candidate continue to fantasize that Paul is still a viable candidate and they remain bonded, with Internet-coordinated “meet-ups” taking place. A March 8 gathering of Paulites occurred at Johnson’s ranch for the purpose of hand-painting placards for the judicial campaign. Another such get-together took place last Saturday. The announcement for last week’s event, appearing at “ronpaul.meetup.com,” said:
“This is our last chance to make banners before we start putting them on the street. We will be making Bill Johnson and Ron Paul signs.”
An evening meeting of Ron Paul adherents is slated for April 8. An announcement on the website reads:
“Come join us at the Johnson Ranch!!! Make sure you bring your thoughts and ideas. This is also a Pasadena Ron Paul meetup so we will also be talking about Ron Paul. Also, this is the time to start hanging our Bill Johnson signs so come down and stock up.”
Johnson’s campaign for the nonpartisan office of judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court is inextricably bound to the campaign in support of Ron Paul’s bid for the Republican nomination for president. Although Paul has only 21 delegates committed to him and U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has cinched the nomination, it remains that Johnson is merging his identity with that of the seeker of partisan office.
His intent to do so is plain. Not only is he opening his home to pro-Paul (and concurrent pro-Johnson) activities, but his campaign website has a link to the “Bill Johnson for Judge Meetup” page on the Ron Paul meetups website.
This violates the spirit, if not the letter, of a judicial canon, incorporated in the State Bar rules, which provides that “Judges and candidates for judicial office shall not…publicly endorse…a candidate for nonjudicial office.” Even assuming the provision is constitutionally assailable, noncompliance with it flies in the face of the popular desire for a politically non-partisan judiciary.
Johnson has opted not to meet with the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s committee that rates judicial candidates. That is, of course, his prerogative.
Is that an affront to the 24,000 members of LACBA? Well, in a minor sense, yes.
But LACBA is, after all, not a special-interest group in connection with judicial elections; it is a group specially interested in the outcome only to the extent that its members and their clients will profit from selection of the best qualified of the contenders on the ballot. Those, like Johnson, who won’t participate in the evaluation process snub not merely LACBA but those to whom the organization helpfully reports: the electorate at large.
WHILE BIANCO DOES HAVE his detractors, and is off to a rocky start as a judicial officer, we readily discern high qualities in him and endorse him, albeit guardedly. We are hopeful he will prevail in the current contest and will come to secure the confidence of those segments of the bar which have to this point found his performance wanting.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company