Tuesday, April 15, 2008
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 69
Family Law Commissioner and Criminal Prosecutor Square Off for Judgeship
The contest to succeed Superior Court Judge Tracy Grant, who is scheduled to leave office in January, is between two individuals who have both spent a lot of time in a courtroom, and both claim to have a love for the trial courts. Both also say they plan to run six-figure campaigns.
Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Harvey A. Silberman claims he should be elected judge because he is “already doing the job,” in the family law court. Deputy District Attorney Serena R. Murillo counters: “He is doing a job, but he’s not doing the job,” and argues her tenure as a prosecutor in the criminal courts renders her better suited for judgeship.
Silberman will be listed as “Superior Court Commissioner” on the June 3 primary ballot, and Murillo will be designated a “Criminal Prosecutor.”
HARVEY A. SILBERMAN
Family Law Commissioner Calls Himself ‘Underdog’
On the campaign trail, Harvey A. Silberman says he has had to explain that his job as a court commissioner is not taking care of animals at the zoo, and he’s not the person who can bring a professional football team back to Los Angeles.
“I’m an underdog,” he acknowledges. “It’s hard to run against D.A.s because of what they do.”
Indeed the statistics are against him, because in most past contests between a prosecutor and a commissioner, the prosecutor has prevailed.
But the Eagle Rock resident, 51, says he is meeting people “group by group, church by church, synagogue by synagogue,” explaining what he does as a commissioner, and hoping his endorsements and background will speak for themselves on election day.
“I’m already doing the job you’re voting for me to do, and I have a record in public service that starts before I was on the bench,” he says. “I trust that the electorate would take a look at that record.”
Additionally, he says, “we have historically had a very difficult time finding judges willing to take on family law assignments,” but “I’m ready, willing and able to do that.” Silberman has been involved in family law for most of his legal career, and currently sits in the family law court downtown, and heads the court’s family law judicial mentoring program.
Family law is “difficult, but fascinating,” he says. “The human condition is such an interesting and changing thing…and family law touches it at its most seminal moments.”
But at the same time, he acknowledges that new judges are often put in criminal courts to gain experience, and says, “I’m always interested in learning more and challenging myself,” and a non-family law assignment would be an “enticing intellectual challenge” he would also gladly accept.
And he says he’s capable. Shortly after having been sworn in, while touring the Central Arraignment Court, he says the presiding judge asked him to fill in for an absent judge and do arraignments.
He smiles as he recalls:
“I read the book about what I was supposed to do...and arraigned about 70 to 80 people.... So I’ve had that one day in criminal court.”
He says he has also handled hundreds of restraining orders and quasi-criminal contempt orders.
Previously Sought Appointment
Silberman, a Democrat, has also sought an appointment by the governor and the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation interviewed him. He says the “major one” of the two criticisms the commission gave him was related to an incident in the civil harassment court where there was a complaint that he did not understand the law he was supposed to apply and applied the wrong law.
Silberman claims that he has never had any formal complaints made against him, although he says there were some complaints made to the supervising judge when he first started in the civil harassment court. He says it was “stuff like I wasn’t listening or a party wanted a different judge,” and although he did not think the comments were warranted, he says he did take them to heart.
As a commissioner, he admits, “there are days I’ve got to bite my lip.” But he says he tries “to take an open and welcoming attitude and disarm people” because “to cop an attitude or be forbidding in any way was counterproductive as an attorney and is doubly counterproductive when I’m on the bench.”
Generally, he says, his courtroom is “very busy and popular,” and “I’ve certainly had my share of [high profile] cases,” which most recently included a closed-door hearing in a dispute between actor Charlie Sheen and his ex-wife Denise Richards. However, he says, most of the time the parties in his court appear pro per.
“It gets to the heart of the matter quicker if I can disarm someone and not make them feel like they’re on the spot,” he comments.
Silberman also strongly encourages parties to work together, he explains, because “it’s important to get people to buy into a plan, or else they’ll be here every week.”
He also prides himself on always referring to a party’s children by their names. “The difference in how people respond when you do that is profound,” he says. “It’s little things like that, that I make sure happen.”
He says that, in the courtroom, “I take a very child-focused attitude,” and that the common denominator throughout his legal career is that he has always represented children.
USC Law Graduate
Silberman attended Wesleyan University in Middleton, Conn., and graduated from USC Law School in 1992. After being admitted to the State Bar later that year, Silberman served as the first staff attorney for, and later acting director of, AIDS Project Los Angeles. Since then, he has also taught family law at USC Law School, worked for the Glendora family law firm of Stettner, Eisenberg & Morris, and served as a staff attorney for San Fernando Valley Legal Services.
He was elected commissioner in 2004, and sat in the civil harassment court before moving to the family law court.
Silberman’s ultimate goal is to have an impact on policy and administration. For one, he wants family and dependency courts to be able to work together to better serve families. “Right now we don’t even have linked computers,” he says, “but it’s on the wish-for, to-do list.”
Another important issue to him is the court’s “paper problem”—the constant shifting around of files in a field of law where the cases “never close, they just get quiet for a while.” At any given time, he has thousands of open files, and laments “I could travel to London faster than I can get a file out of the archives.”
His solution includes an e-mail program called Our Family Wizard for communications between parties, and keeping all his notes electronically. He promises to leave whoever succeeds him in his department “far more prepared than I was left when I assumed someone else’s files.”
He credits Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William A. MacLaughlin with inspiring him and encouraging him to seek the bench, and MacLaughlin says Silberman is well suited to serving as a judge.
“He’s hard-working, he loves what he does, and he does the very best he can to be fair and find meaningful answers,” the former presiding judge says.
“Service in a collaborative court can be different than what is required in a civil or criminal court. A good jurist can find a skill set that works in differing circumstances...[so] I think he’d be an excellent judge.”
Silberman is endorsed by the supervising judges of the criminal, civil, and family law departments in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, and says he has about 100 other judges and commissioners backing him.
Originally, Silberman filed declarations of intent for two races, but dropped out of the multi-candidate race for Office No. 94. The deciding factor, he says, was the impact on his family, because the contest with Murillo would end in June as opposed to November for the multi-candidate race.
“I haven’t run for anything since sixth grade class president,” Silberman quips. “I won, but my constituency was much smaller then.”
Fred Huebscher, a political consultant who is not involved in the contest, gives Silberman a 50-50 chance at winning the election, which he says is “better than a lot of commissioners have in a two-candidate race.”
He opines that running against a prosecutor was not as big a disadvantage for Silberman as it might have been in prior electoral cycles because there will likely be a low voter turnout, and because Silberman is a “strong candidate” with “a lot of support…from different parts of the community.”
“I wouldn’t say he’s the underdog, but I wouldn’t say he’s the favorite. I think it’ll be close… It all depends on the campaign they’re running.”
Silberman says he has been fundraising for about two months, and has raised about $80,000. He has contributed $40,000 of his own money, and estimates that he has about $60,000 to $70,000 more to raise.
Silberman admits that being away from home campaigning causes some strain on his family, but he says:
“I decided I wasn’t just going to pay for mailers and sit behind the bench. I enjoy getting out from behind the bench and talking to people. Win or lose, I wouldn’t give up this experience.”
The experience has not been entirely pleasant. Although Silberman repeatedly stated his interest in being a public servant during an interview, Shirley Deutsch, an attorney with Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, claims Silberman was not so willing to perform his civic duty as a juror in 2006.
Deutsch represented the plaintiffs in Certain Underwriters at Lloyds London v. Anastasi Construction, BC260332. Silberman was selected as an alternate juror for the trial, but Deutsch says, “this guy was going to do anything he could to get off.”
She says Silberman insisted that he could not serve because he was a judicial officer, and was “really upset” at being impaneled. One of the other attorneys from the case corroborated Deutsch, saying: “You could tell from his physical appearance he was obviously upset.”
Deutsch claims that the court later received a phone call, purportedly from a Los Angeles Times reporter, who was writing a story about how a judge was being forced to serve jury duty and wasting taxpayer resources, and that Silberman brought in a doctor’s note the next day, which in her recollection stated Silberman had “some sort of medical condition or sleeping disorder” and “couldn’t stay awake for a long period of time.”
Deutsch says that Judge Gregory Alarcon did not accept the note, but suggested that the parties stipulate to removing Silberman as a juror.
She says she did not know the manner in which Silberman was dismissed, but he did not serve as an alternate on the jury.
“It left a really bad taste in my mouth,” she continues. “He seemed to think he was too important to be there. It wasn’t really fair to the other jurors. None of the jurors wanted to be there, but they did their duty like good citizens.”
The other attorney also could not recall the manner in which Silberman was released. The attorney says the medical excuse Deutsch claimed Silberman used was “vaguely familiar,” and, “I remember he came up with something.”
Incident Not Reported
Deutsch says she had never met Silberman before, or outside of the voir dire proceedings for that trial. She never reported the incident to any agency because “it never occurred to me,” and that, because Silberman is a commissioner, she was unsure which organizations to contact.
She says when she learned that Silberman was running for judge, she came forward because she was concerned about his qualifications.
“If [the note] was true, I think that’s something that the public should know about because he was presumably on the bench and hearing cases at the time. If it’s a fake note that’s really serious, that’s fraud.”
Silberman disputes Deutsch’s account, and claims he “desperately wanted to serve.”
His proof of service certificate confirms that he served Sept. 19, 20 and 21, as well as Oct. 3, 2006.
He says that during voir dire he told the court that he was a judicial officer with a busy courtroom, so his prolonged absence would pose a hardship. He also discloses that he was taking a new migraine medication at that time for which fatigue was a symptom.
Silberman does not recall the name of the medication or how long he took it, but says he no longer suffers from migraines.
According to him, his only objection to serving on the jury was that trial was scheduled to commence on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the faith.
He says he called the court and informed the court that he would not serve on that day for religious reasons, but that Alarcon had called him and asked him to serve a half day on Yom Kippur.
“I have never worked in my adult life on Yom Kippur,” he says. “I thought it was really inappropriate for the judge to ask me to serve a half day on Yom Kippur.”
‘Ready to Serve’
However, Silberman says the start date was pushed back, and he arrived the first day of trial ready to serve, but “without any reason, I was told I was released.”
He says he had cleared his calendar for months ahead in preparation for his jury service, which inconvenienced many parties and others at the courthouse.
“I believe there was much going on behind the scenes,” and suggested that pressure may have been put on Alarcon to dismiss him. But, he says, “I was not privy to what was done.”
He emphatically denies ever refusing to perform jury service. He suggests that Alarcon was upset about the “pressure put on him,” and says “I wouldn’t be surprised if he supports my opponent.”
Silberman’s opponent, Serena Murillo responds:
“It is scurrilous to imply that any judge would lie to benefit my campaign. Not only do I not know Judge Alarcon, but he has had nothing to do with my campaign whatsoever.”
Alarcon, through a court spokesperson, declined to comment on the matter.
A Sept. 27, 2006 minute order indicates that the parties stipulated to have the trial date continued from Oct. 2 until Oct. 3 due to the religious holiday. According to the same minute order, the court informed counsel that two phone calls were received by the court on Sept. 29 inquiring about one of the impaneled jurors.
The Oct. 3 minute order states that Silberman was excused for cause. No doctor’s note was found within the court file or mentioned in the minute orders.
Other attorneys associated with the case either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.
SERENA R. MURILLO
Veteran Prosecutor Calls Judgeship ‘Lifelong Goal’
Being a prosecutor has a lot in common with being a trial judge, Serena R. Murillo says, noting that a prosecutor’s duty to prosecute a case while being fair to a defendant, take pleas and pick a jury are very similar to a judge’s responsibilities in a trial court.
Her opponent, Commissioner Harvey A. Silberman, is “doing a job, but he’s not doing the job” of a trial judge, the 38-year old contends.
“The job is doing jury trials, taking guilty pleas, and making decisions as to when murderers will be released to the streets,” she says. “He’s not doing that. He doesn’t have any jury trial experience that I know of.”
For her part, the veteran prosecutor has conducted approximately 68 trials and more than 400 preliminary hearings, in her estimation, since joining the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office in 1997.
“I’ve always wanted to be a judge,” she says, and made the decision to run after her husband, Deputy District Attorney Christian R. Gullon, decided not to. Gullon had taken out papers to run for retired Judge Bradford L. Andrews’ seat, but the election was postponed to 2010 when the governor appointed Louis M. Meisinger to fill the vacancy.
The decision for which office to run for was “easy by the time I chose to jump in,” she says. “I wasn’t going to run against a D.A.,” which only left two seats available.
She says she had appeared a few times before Commissioner James N. Bianco, who is running for the seat vacated by retiring Judge Daniel S. Pratt, but she had never heard of Silberman.
Reared in Chino
Murillo was born to a family of migrant farm workers in Pomona and grew up in Chino. The eldest of four children, she played 17 years of competitive basketball and was the first in her family to go to college.
She played on the Chino High School team where her father was and still is a coach. Her team went to state finals in 1986, and she led her team to the California Interscholastic Federation championship as team captain in 1988.
Murillo played Division III basketball at UC San Diego after briefly attending Brown University.
She remains an avid college basketball fan, and says the period of the NCAA Division I Championships—better known as March Madness—is her favorite time of year. Murillo lamented that she was not able to fill out her brackets before the playoffs began this year because of the election.
She obtained her law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in 1996. While in law school, she interned at the District Attorney’s Office, which she says was “one of the best things I ever could have done.”
Upon graduation, she knew she wanted to be a deputy district attorney, but because of a county hiring freeze, she was forced to look for other employment, she explains.
After sitting for the July 1996 California bar exam, Murillo worked as a law clerk for the Claremont civil law firm of Shernoff, Bidart and Darras. She was admitted to the State Bar in November of that year, and moved to the West Los Angeles civil firm of McNicholas & McNicholas as an associate.
When the hiring freeze ended in 1997, Murillo attained her goal of becoming a deputy district attorney. She spent her first year on a misdemeanor rotation and then moved to the Eastlake Juvenile Court.
After a year in the juvenile court, she moved to Central Trials, which she calls the “pressure cooker” of the District Attorney’s Office.
Upon returning from her four-month maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter in 2004, Murillo recalls that she went straight into the courtroom for jury selection. “Thankfully, the defendant ended up pleading guilty,” she comments.
Major Fraud Division
Murillo transferred to the Major Fraud Division in 2005, and has been working three days per week after giving birth to twins in late 2006. She turned down the opportunity to return to a full-time schedule last month in order to devote herself to her campaign.
She also served on the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation from 2004 until last year. The experience “taught me a lot about what things are valuable and what things are not for a judge,” she says.
“Being well-rounded, having civil and criminal experience, a favorable judicial temperament, not being arrogant, being fair-minded, having a demonstrated interest in public interest and community, and being able to function well and efficiently under pressure” were traits important to the commission, she says, and traits that she thinks she has, save for the civil experience.
“I’ve never done a civil trial,” she admits, but says she is still hoping for a “Well Qualified” designation from the County Bar. “EWQ [Exceptionally Well Qualified] would be fine too,” she laughs.
Murillo also has some glowing recommendations, and has been endorsed by both District Attorney Steve Cooley and Public Defender Michael P. Judge, among others.
Deputy Attorney General Todd D. Irby, a former chair of the JNE Commission, praises Murillo’s “soaring intellect, solid judgment, keen wit, wisdom, unassailable honesty and unimpeachable integrity.”
Deputy Alternate Public Defender Robert Meneses calls Murillo “fair and professional.” He compliments her reputation within the Alternate Public Defender’s Office and among private defense attorneys.
“She makes proper decisions about those cases that should be tried and those cases that should be settled,” he says. “She has compassion for people who care to change their lives for the better but will zealously prosecute people who are a threat to our community.”
Aspirations as Jurist
Having a defense attorney speak so highly of her “means a lot to me,” she says, because she aspires to be the sort of judge that both prosecutors and defense attorneys respect for following the law. Her ultimate goal as a jurist, she says, would be “for people to say I gave them a fair trial, understood the issues” and that she is a “knowledgeable person.”
Murillo is a former vice president and founding member of the Latino Prosecutor’s Association, former president of the Latino Prosecutors Foundation, and former member of Latina Lawyers.
A Democrat, she says she has not sought an appointment from the governor. Policy dictates she not seek an appointment until two-thirds of the people who had served with her on the JNE commission leave, she explains.
The fluent Spanish-speaker says she is hoping that her last name will attract the Hispanic vote, but that being a Latina prosecutor is not necessarily a guaranteed winning combination because of the expected low voter turnout, and because she is running against a commissioner. However, she does think her designation may attract more voters than Silberman’s, she says.
Murillo plans to spend about $150,000 on her campaign, and has already spent $83,000 to have a candidate statement in the ballot pamphlet.
She expects her campaign consultant, Cerrell Associates Inc., to broker space for her on slate mailers and is also utilizing the Internet, which she says is a “largely untapped resource in elections.”
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page 2008 Judicial Candidate Profiles