Thursday, April 5, 2012
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 3
Two Prosecutors, Pro Bono Attorney, Broadcaster Seek Open Seat
Four persons are vying for one of the three open seats on the June 5 ballot. Two of the candidates are deputy district attorneys. The other two are part-time lawyers each of whom points to his judicial experience as a volunteer pro tem judge. Today, three of the contestants are spotlighted. A separate profile on the fourth candidate appears tomorrow.
SEAN D. COEN
If Deputy District Attorney Prevails, He and His Father Will Be Colleagues
Should Deputy District Attorney Sean Coen be elected to the Los Angeles Superior Court, there will be created the only father and son team on that bench.
And it will probably be the first time in the history of the court—which goes back to 1880—that a father and son were on the Superior Court at the same time.
A father and daughter were on the court contemporaneously: Victor Chavez (a former presiding judge, still sitting) and Victoria Chavez (now on the Court of Appeal). There have been various instances of a husband and wife serving at the same time—including, currently, Judges Carolyn Kuhl and William Highberger. Brothers have served together; in recent years, there were Michael and John Farrell, both now retired. Several fathers and sons have served on the bench at different times—among them, sitting Judge Fred Wapner, following in the footsteps of retired Judge Joseph Wapner, a former presiding judge of the court (later presiding on television’s “People’s Court”).
Research by the Planning and Research unit of the Los Angeles Superior Court, as well as by this newspaper, unearthed no instance of a father and son serving simultaneously on this county’s trial bench.
Large War Chest
Chances do look favorable for candidate Coen to join his father, Judge Ronald Coen, on the Superior Court. To begin with, his campaign coffers are bulging, containing about $450,000—approximately $400,000 placed there by Coen and his family.
One opponent in the race, radio show host Joseph Escalante—who says “I’m certainly not going to put a whole bunch of money” in the campaign—points out that candidates sometimes plunk huge sums of money in their treasuries for effect, then not spend it.
Whether or not all of the Coen funds are actually expended, about $100,000 has already been used to buy space in the voters’ pamphlet for a candidate statement. Coen and challenged Judge Sanjay Kumar are the only judicial candidates who have made that purchase, generally viewed in recent years as less cost-effective than buying space on slate mailers.
Space on numerous slate mailers will also be purchased, the candidate says.
Coen also has the advantage of a ballot designation which in past elections has proven to be a magnet for votes: “Gang Homicide Prosecutor.” He prosecutes gang-related murder and attempted murder cases.
Giving him a leg up in attracting endorsements from newspapers and organizations is that his courtroom experience outshines that of his three rivals.
“I have completed 114 jury trials, which includes 15 misdemeanor trials and 99 felony trials,” Coen says.
He has been a deputy DA since 2000, and is a “grade 4” deputy, the highest level short of being in management.
In his last three annual internal performance evaluations, Coen was found to have “Exceeded Expectations (Very Good)” in 2009 and 2011 and to have “Met Expectations (Competent)” in 2010. In the latest report (covering July 3, 2010-July 2, 2011), the reviewer remarks: “Sean is well respected by his peers and the bench.”
One Los Angeles Superior Court judge, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the theme of Coen’s campaign appears to be: “Don’t you know who my father is?”
The judge observes that reference to his dad’s judgeship “appears to be his only topic of conversation.”
Coen protests: “It couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
In fact, he says, he’s not at all reticent about telling inquirers about “things that I would do differently in the courtroom” from what his father does.
“In jury selection, some judges, including my father, will use a questionnaire where you have all the jurors read questions, let’s say one through 20, and you go down through each juror. ‘M’am, Juror No. 4, you have any yes answers to questions one through 20?’ In my experience with that, I think you can just actually get more information by going through each juror separately, forgetting the questionnaire.”
“Most judges now will pre-instruct, the jury instructions. My father doesn’t. He does the jury instructions after. I would pre-instruct just because the jury instructions are, I think, just one of the most boring thing about a trial, and I think it’s great to end the jury trial with closing arguments by both counsel. It’s passionate, it’s exciting, and then you send the jurors off to make their decision, instead of ending with jury instructions, for example.”
Coen makes clear that he is not broadly repudiating his father’s approach, and would emulate him in significant respects. He says:
“I like that he stays up on the law, and I would definitely do that. I think that’s important. I think it’s important to…make people in the courtroom feel comfortable, most importantly jurors.”
Coen received his undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon in 1996 and his law degree from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento in 1999. He was admitted to the State Bar on Nov. 24 of that year.
In January of 2000, Coen went to work for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office—but, not right off the bat as a deputy DA. Until there was an opening in April, he worked as a senior law clerk.
Coen’s wife, Lisa, is also a deputy district attorney. They have four children.
Purported ‘Criminal Trial Prosecutor’ Handles No Criminal Trials
Deputy District Attorney Craig Gold is listed on the ballot as “Criminal Trial Prosecutor.”
But is he?
His colleague in the DA’s Office and rival for the seat, Sean Coen, asked the Registrar-Recorder’s Office to bump the designation because, he contends, it does not meet the statutory requirement of describing what the candidate either presently does or has done during the past one-year period. That request was spurned.
“We weighed our options and we decided not to file a writ [petition].”
Nonetheless, he continues to argue that the designation is misleading, saying that Gold hasn’t been “in trial, from my understanding, for the last 10 years because of being assigned to the asset forfeiture unit.”
“It’s my understanding, at least, that in asset forfeiture that they do not do trials that often, if at all.”
(Forfeiture proceedings are civil in nature, ancillary to criminal cases, generally drug-related ones. Health & Safety Code §11469 spells out that “civil forfeiture is intended to be remedial by removing the tools and profits from those engaged in the illicit drug trade.”)
Here’s what Gold says, in an e-mail:
The MetNews made a Public Records Act request to the District Attorneys Office to disclose the number of trials handled during the past five years by each deputy who is running for the Superior Court or for district attorney. The response says, with respect to Gold:
“Mr. Gold did not have any jury trials within the relevant time period.”
That’s jury trials. What about bench trials?
According to the Bureau of Prosecution Support Operations, the office doesn’t keep track of those.
However, the bureau’s special assistant, Tracey Lopez, did exact from Gold a concession that, aside from handling civil forfeiture actions, “he has not conducted any bench trials” during the past two years.
Gold received his undergraduate degree from New York’s Cornell University in 1977, then working for two years as a labor negotiator in the District of Columbia.
Moving to San Francisco, and while working in the daytime as personnel director for the Sir Frances Drake Hotel, Gold began attending night classes at Golden Gate University School of Law. He obtained his law degree from there in 1985.
He gained admission to the State Bar four years later. At the outset of 1990, he went to work for the District Attorney’s Office.
Gold advises, by e-mail:
“In my career, I have prosecuted over fifty (50) felony jury trials including 3 strike cases, gross vehicular manslaughter with DUI charges, attempted premeditated murder with personal use of a firearm with other residential robbery and carjacking charges; murder; and various other cases.”
After 22 years in the office, he remains a “grade 3” deputy and has been relegated to an assignment generally regarded as undesirable.
As to his assignment, Gold says:
“I don’t think it carries the same level of prestige as the other units—but I’ve become very senior at it. I do training in it. It is a very specialized area and an area, certainly, there’s a lot of high regard for it, certainly, maybe more so now because it brings in a lot of revenue to the state, to the police agencies and to the office.”
In that assignment, his office has found him to be proficient. For the periods ending in January, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, he was found to have “Exceeded Expectations.” The reviewer says in the latest report: “In his performance in the Asset Forfeiture Unit, Mr. Gold ranks among the ‘best of the best’, on a consistent basis.”
Won’t Discuss Discipline
In an interview, there is a long pause after Gold is asked if he has incurred departmental discipline.
“Yes,” he acknowledges. “One time, many, many years ago—.” He stops himself.
“That was kept confidential—it was back in the mid-’90s, I believe.”
He declines to discuss the nature of the matter that led to the discipline, saying:
“I don’t know if I want to, if I feel comfortable. It was a—. Is this something that would be published?”
Told that it is, Gold says:
“I don’t think it would be appropriate to talk about it. It was just something, it had nothing to do with anything on the job. It was a off-the-job related matter. A personal matter.”
He says it did not entail criminality or an infraction, elaborating:
“It may be like an indiscretion, might be about the best way to describe it.”
Would he be willing to authorize a release of his disciplinary record?”
“No,” he responds.
He then reflects: “It was supposed to be expunged from my record, to begin with.”
Gold does disclose:
“It didn’t deal with anything of honesty or anything that would relate to my fitness to be a judge or anything, but just something being younger at the time, and I was single at the time.”
As to the extent of the discipline, the candidate recounts:
“I believe there may have been a docking of pay for about two or three days.”
Gold is now married. His wife, Marietta, is a speech therapist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
They have twin boys “that are about to be 5,” he says.
He describes tennis as his “passion.”
LAURENCE N. KALDOR
One-Legged, One-Eyed Lawyer Devotes Time to Pro Bono Legal Tasks
At the age of 16, Laurence Kaldor was in a plane crash. While he survived, his father didn’t.
Kaldor is left with one eye and one leg.
His spirit, however, is intact.
In fact, he’s a person who is upbeat, revved, and might overwhelm some with his enthusiasm.
“My health—I’m 100 percent,” he says.
Kaldor is listed on the ballot as a “Domestic Violence Litigator.” That stems from his work since 2002 with the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law.
“I’ve found…my niche doing domestic violence litigation,” Kaldor says, adding:
“And I don’t get money from it.”
He derives no income, at all, from law practice, he notes.
Kaldor, a graduate of the law school at Golden Gate University, has been a lawyer since 1996.
The first client to provide any consideration for his services, him, he brings to mind, baked him a pie. And a friend he represented bought him a cheeseburger.
Kaldor explains that following the plane crash, “we got a settlement out of that.”
“I was able to invest it, and live off of that. I’m not wealthy…but I’m comfortable, I’m very comfortable, and I’ve been able to sustain my practice of pro bono work.”
The candidate says his wife, Maria, does work, as a research analyst for the University of Pepperdine. She is “supportive” of his pro bono work, he relates.
Employment in Hollywood
He has, however, received pay for essentially non-legal services—though his work brought into play his skills as a lawyer.
“I’ve gotten money as a producer,” he recites.
The IMDb website reflects that Kaldor has been a producer, director, actor and editor during the period from 1999-2010.
“While producing,” Kaldor points out, “I’m doing contract work, I’m negotiating with unions, SAG [Screen Actors Guild] members.
“I’m honing my skills as a lawyer because everyday on set, there’s a dozen intellectual property issues in every scene. So, I’m constantly working as a lawyer as well as in the film industry.”
Preparing for Judgeship
Right now, he says, “I’m constantly honing my skills to become a judge.”
He’s doing that, Kaldor advises, not only through work as a pro bono attorney at Harriet Buhai Center, but as a volunteer pro tem since 2009, and, since January, a volunteer prosecutor for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
“If I don’t make this particular race, and if I don’t get appointed,” Kaldor says, “I will have dozens and dozens, if not closing in on a hundred, jury trials, criminal jury trials, with the City Attorney’s Office, going into 2014 or even ’16.”
He goes on to say:
“To me, this is all about getting experience. This is all about rounding out my resume to be the most viable candidate as a judge, and to be the best judge I can be, to be the best bench officer I can be.”
The candidate acknowledges that he had no jury trial experience prior to January and that, as of yet, he has not handled a jury trial to verdict. The 17 misdemeanor prosecutions he’s undertaken in Van Nuys have resulted in dispositions, he says—which is why he’ll be moving April 16 to downtown Los Angeles, where more cases do go to verdict.
Kaldor says he has handled six bench trials through verdict, five stemming from domestic violence and one being his own breach of contract action against his initial consultant in the judicial race, which he notes that he won.
Citing Coen’s “virtually bottomless war chest,” Kaldor accepts that he is an underdog in the race.
He does expect to spend $200,000-$250,000, he says.
His list of endorsers is vast but many of them are persons who are outside the legal profession and out of the county—and several outside the United States. They include a registered nurse in the Philippines, two medical doctors at Harvard, and a hotel man in Hawaii.
Kaldor says these are persons who know what his personal qualities are, qualities that bear on his fitness for the bench.
“My qualifications as a judge are multi-dimensional,” he declares.
The Kaldors have a four-week-old baby and a 2-year-old.
—Roger M. Grace
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company