Tuesday, May 1, 2012
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 38
Judge Who Gained Office Through Challenge Now Incurs Challenge
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lynn D. Olson, who six years ago gained office by deposing an incumbent at the polls, this year herself faces a challenger, realtor Douglas Weitzman.
Olson will be identified on the ballot as “Judge of the Superior Court, Office Number 38”—reference to the office number as part of the title being uncommon, if not unprecedented. Weitzman is labeled a “Consumer Rights Attorney” though it is unknown what work he has done on behalf of consumers or as an attorney.
Although the incumbent is generally thought to be doing a conscientious job—and is presently handling unlimited jurisdiction civil cases—her Los Angeles County Bar Assn. rating is apt to be less than dazzling in light of her refusal to cooperate in the evaluation process. Weitzman is nearly certain to be found “not qualified” in light of having been so branded in each of the past three judicial elections.
Olson has not drawn the level of support from either the bench or bar which most challenged incumbents receive—which is a theme of the following profile. The spotlight will be on Weitzman tomorrow.
LYNN DIANE OLSON
Jurist Hasn’t Been Forgiven by Legal Community for Successful Challenge Six Years Ago to Sitting Judge, Dzintra Janavs
The legal community generally rallies around challenged Los Angeles Superior Court judges, extending endorsements and funding. Judge Lynn Olson has drawn a challenge, and lawyers and judges are looking the other way.
It’s not that she’s done a bad job as a jurist. Satisfaction with the job she’s doing is generally expressed.
It’s not that her opponent is a meritorious candidate. The Los Angeles Country Bar Assn. has thrice found him “not qualified” for a judgeship.
The reason that Olson is widely in disfavor is that six years ago, she changed her bar membership from inactive to active and declared her candidacy for a post held by a respected veteran jurist, Dzintra Janavs. Despite the incumbent’s evident political disadvantage—her unusual Latvian name—Olson did not appear to pose a real threat; she filed a Fair Political Practice Commission form declaring that her campaign would spend less than $1,000, engendering complacency in the Janavs camp. In the final weeks of the campaign, however, she poured about $120,000 into her effort, buying space on slate mailers, and winning.
A June 11, 2006 post-election editorial in the Los Angeles Times notes:
“Olson has spent most of her career not practicing law but operating a bagel bakery in Manhattan Beach.”
Some in the South Bay alluded to her as “The Bagel Lady,” an appellation applied to her during the judicial election in 2006, and one still employed when lawyers and judges talk about her—though Olson says she’s “not aware” of that.
Other Challenged Incumbents
Olson is one of three challenged incumbents this year. The other two are Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Sanjay T. Kumar and James D. Otto.
Los Angeles Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley is pushing for the reelection of Kumar and Otto. With respect to the contest Olson is in, he says:
“I’m not supporting anybody in that race.”
District Attorney Steve Cooley declares that he emphatically endorses Kumar and Otto. As to Olson, he says:
“I’m not going to endorse her.”
Deputy District Attorney Sean D. Coen, running for a Superior Court open seat, distances himself from Olson in responding to a query as to whether he supports the challenged incumbents, saying:
“I know Judge Kumar, by reputation, and I know Judge Otto by reputation, and to me, they have a very good reputation. I do not know a lot about Judge Olson.”
One judge says in an e-mail that the judicial challenges “will cost me personally a thousand bucks for Sanjay and another grand for my buddy Jim Otto,” adding: “And just after I mailed in my tax return. OUCH!!!”
He makes no mention of contributing to Olson.
There have been joint fundraisers for Kumar and Otto—such as a $200-per-person reception in Malibu on April 21—with Olson being left out.
The challenge to Kumar, by a lawyer named Kim Smith, is widely viewed as having been inspired by Olson’s victory over Janavs six years ago. Kumar, whose name is Indian, was asked by the MetNews in February if he would be supporting Olson. His answer: “I’m not sure.”
If Olson were to ask him right then, on the spot, if he would endorse her, what would he say?
His response was that he would tell her he would need to “sleep on it.”
In the interim, has Kumar endorsed her? Olson advises:
“I did send out a general solicitation letter, but I did not get anything back from him. But I have not spoken to him personally.”
As to whether the example she set in 2006 might have motivated the challenge to Kumar, Olson says:
“I have no idea.”
She declares that she is “not going to speculate” as to what Smith’s “motivations are or why he chose Judge Kumar” as his target. Olson says of Kumar:
“I wish him well.”
The candidate also remarks:
“It’s Mr. Weitzman’s right to run. He can run. He chose me [to run against]. I’m going to campaign hard. The other elections: I’m very hopeful that my colleagues will retain their seats, but I don’t really have anything to say about the other elections. I’m going to work hard on mine.”
Olson did not admit in 2006—and will not concede now—that she singled out Janavs to oppose because of her name. However, political strategist Fred Huebscher, her friend and unofficial campaign advisor in 2006 (as now), had been contending since at least 2000 that judges with foreign-sounding names are vulnerable to challenges.
On March 10, 2006, Olson took out nominating papers at the Registrar-Recorder’s Office. MetNews staff writer Kenneth Ofgang was there, and asked her, pointblank, if she were running against Janavs based on the incumbent’s name. Olson looked at the journalist and remained mum.
She did not speak with this newspaper from that point until after her June 6 election.
The June 8, 2006 issue of the Los Angeles Times reports:
“Olson and her husband, Michael Keegan, a Hermosa Beach councilman, said they did not target Janavs because of her name, but rather because she was Republican.
“ ‘I targeted Janavs because of her political affiliation, time on the bench and what I hear about her from people in the legal community,’ Olson said, referring to Janavs’ reputation for courtroom gruffness.”
Huebscher, however, tells it differently. An article in the August 2008 edition of the ABA Journal says:
Los Angeles County voters often prefer candidates whose last names appear to be Hispanic or white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, says Fred Huebscher, a Hermosa Beach, Calif., political consultant. In 2006 he worked on a judicial campaign for Lynn Olson, an attorney who had left the law to run a bagel and sandwich shop.
Olson ran against Dzintra Janavs, a sitting judge who received an “exceptionally well-qualified” rating from the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
“People couldn’t pronounce that name, they didn’t know what [ethnicity] she was and they didn’t know if she was a man or a woman,” Huebscher says. “You couldn’t come up with a worse name if you tried. I knew we could win that race.”
And they did. Olson, who was found “not qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, won 54 percent of the vote.
Olson does not acknowledge that Huebscher engineered her run to prove his theory, but does say:
“His advice was, ‘Go for it,’ and we did use Mr. Huebscher’s services back in 2006.”
She mentions that Huebscher is “Uncle Fred” to her two adopted children, a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl.
The judge declines to attempt to reconcile her 2006 statement to the Times with Huebscher’s 2008 remark to the ABA Journal.
“I really don’t want to go back to 2006,” she says, declaring that she wants to focus on “this election and moving forward.”
County Bar Evaluations
Olson declined six years ago to meet with the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee, and has also declined this year.
The Times’ June 8, 2006 story quotes her telling why she did not meet with the committee: “When have they ever not endorsed a sitting judge? I’m not sure ever.”
(LACBA does not make endorsements—though it did during the period from 1920-72, based on the outcome of plebiscites. There were incumbents who were not endorsed. Since 1978, a committee has given candidates ratings—and there have been incumbents labeled “not qualified.”)
This year, she explains her unwillingness to participate in the rating process by saying:
“My husband and I are very blessed to have two very small children. And we say that we’re the oldest but the happiest parents. [She’s 48.] And with my new assignment [in Compton], and my plans for my campaign, I am already very tired, and have very limited resources. So my resources are devoted to my family, to my current assignment and being prepared, and my campaign. So, that is the decision I made.”
She explains that time would be sapped by cooperating with JEEC because “[t]here’s a very rigorous process for answering questions and providing references.”
Olson says an appropriate rating this year would be “well qualified.” She elaborates:
I’m prepared. I’m very cordial. I’m very respectful to all people who come before me. I’m on time. I work hard. I listen. And I make the best decision I can every day.”
She notes that she makes herself available for informal resolution of such matters as discovery disputes, saving the parties the expense of motions.
Six years ago, Olson not only lacked judicial experience, but also any recent experience in law practice. She had been on inactive status for 12 years. Was the rating that year a fair one?
“I don’t even recall what the rating was,” Olson says.
Reminded that it was “not qualified,” she comments:
“Well, had I the experience? I hadn’t done any pro temming. No. But I think I had the qualifications to run and the desire to serve which made me an appropriate candidate for the position.”
She says that she disagrees with the rating, but will not tell what rating she thinks she should have received.
“I really don’t want to go back there and discuss that, at that time, because I’m really hoping to put that behind me and let where I currently am and my record speak for itself,” Olson says. “I know a lot has been written about that and I’ve, in some cases, unfortunately, read a lot about what’s been written, and I really think that is, at this point, water under the bridge.”
In Ofgang’s brief interview with Olson in 2006, the candidate did say that she would have no political consultant (actually, Huebscher was filling that role, on an unpaid basis) and she declared, as she vowed in her FPPC filing, that she would not spend more than $1,000 on the campaign. The June 8, 2006 edition of the Daily Breeze recites her representation of meager finances and reports that Olson “acknowledged Wednesday that was a political strategy designed to encourage Janavs not to take fund-raising seriously.”
Chilly Reception Anticipated
The Times’ June 8, 2006 article reports:
“Olson said she was well aware that she would not be greeted in Superior Court with ‘open arms’ but voiced hope that the controversy would soon be behind her. Still, she said some of the bagel lady references ‘stung a little.’ ”
She was assigned to the courthouse in El Monte—not only a distance of 35-plus miles from her home, but a destination requiring navigation of four freeways.
The assignment was “clearly a punishment,” one judge observes.
Olson says the trip, one way, took about “probably 55 minutes” in light traffic and “an hour-and-a-half” when it was heavy. She says she listened to books on tape.
The judge will not respond directly to an question as to why she thinks she was sent there, but does declare:
“Actually, the East District is an amazing place to work. It’s incredibly collegial. It’s a very wonderful bench in that all of the bench officers are very, very helpful to each other, and I think it did get me a little bit out of the spotlight and I had a very, very busy calendar so I was starting my career seeing a lot of different matters, dealing with a lot of pro pers, and I thought it was very good for me, in retrospect, to make that transition to be the best judge I am still working on being.”
Judges were upset with Olson; many still are. But, Olson says, her colleagues have not manifested displeasure to her.
“No one’s really outwardly snubbed me,” she relates. “I have heard, from reading your paper, and from other people, that some of my colleagues weren’t very pleased at how I did obtain my seat.”
“All of my colleagues have been very professional and collegial.”
One of her colleagues offers this view:
“I think she’s been snubbed and she doesn’t know it….I think she has no concept of how she is perceived.”
The jurist mentions that some new judges skipped the first ceremonial enrobement in 2007, rather than being sworn in at the same time as Olson.
Olson insists that she isn’t bothered by negative impressions of her, maintaining:
“What people say about me—I can’t spend my life worrying about that. I want to do a good job for the public and continue to serve. Spending a lot of time speculating what other people might be saying or thinking, I don’t think will serve me or actually anyone else very well. That would seem to be a very wasteful use of energy.”
But at another point, she indicates that what is said about her does have an effect. Addressing whether she wishes she had captured an open seat, rather than deposing an incumbent, she says:
“No, because I believe elections are part of the process and I think that I was very fortunate to win, and very grateful to have won, but…, quite candidly, if I never heard mention of my name in the paper again, I would be thrilled. Reading about myself and some of the negative things, you know, affect me—because I am a human being. But I think my record of what I’ve done since I’ve been elected should speak for itself.”
Dan Oki is one of 24 sitting Los Angeles Superior Court judges who have endorsed Olson. He explains:
“Although I certainly did not appreciate the manner in which Judge Olson obtained her seat, and I fully supported and contributed to Judge Janavs’ re-election, I had to observe Judge Olson’s work when she was assigned to the East District. She was placed in a very busy limited jurisdiction courtroom in El Monte, handling all of the traffic, small claims, unlawful detainers, and limited civil cases.
“As far as I am aware, she handled this assignment diligently and competently, did not generate complaints from the bar or public, participated in our judges meetings and other events, was collegial with her fellow bench officers and staff, and never complained about her assignment.
“She proved herself to be a hard-working colleague who eventually earned the right to be transferred to an assignment closer to her home when one became available. Having compared this proven track record to the qualifications of her opponent, I did not hesitate to endorse her.”
Also endorsing her is Judge Susan Lopez-Giss, who comments:
“She got a difficult assignment, worked very hard, and pulled her weight.”
Thomas C. Falls, the current supervising judge in the East District, was also supervising judge when Olson was there. While noting that does “not condone Judge Olson’s first election,” he says he will be endorsing her “shortly,” and provides this assessment:
“Judge Olson worked in the El Monte Courthouse from Jan 2007 to December 2009. To give credit where credit is due, she did a very good job. She came in early and stayed late. She worked extremely hard to learn all of the nuances of traffic, limited civil, small claims and unlawful detainers.
“When she was first assigned to El Monte, many lawyers were very upset by her election and made threats to paper her, but the paper never materialized due to the manner in which she conducted her court. Her demeanor was excellent.
“She never hesitated to ask questions of the other bench officers in El Monte, and she attended all of the events and meetings held in the district. In short, Judge Olson did everything that could have been asked of her, and she did so without complaint.
“When she was transferred to Compton, it was at her request and part of the normal end of year transfer process, and frankly, she earned the transfer by her job performance.”
Judge Valerie Salkin, another endorser, has this to say:
“Although I have not personally observed Lynn Olson in court, other bench officers from Compton have spoken well of her performance, particularly Judge [John] Cheroske. When I’ve been around her at judicial events, I have found her to be upbeat, interested in learning, and eager to be the best judge she can be. I recall she once told me she came to the bench ‘prepared to work.’ She has my support.”
Also endorsing Olson are Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon and Judges Cheroske, Tammy C. Ryu, Deborah Sanchez, Steven Sanora, Gary Tanaka, Rolf Treu, Allen Webster, Dan Buckley, Art Lew, Dan Lowenthal, George Genesta, Lia Martin, Eleanor Hunter, Ric Ocampo, Beverly O’Connell, John Kralick, Kevin Brown, R. Carlton Seaver, Arthur Lew and Cliff Klein.
Kumar, by contrast, has endorsements of 13 Court of Appeal justices and 95 sitting judges and commissioners of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Otto boasts endorsements of two California Supreme Court justices, six sitting members of the Court of Appeal, and 205 sitting Superior Court judges and commissioners.
Olson says that “[w]hile endorsements have a purpose, they are only a portion of a successful campaign.” She notes:
“The limited time I have to devote to the campaign is spent on trying to reach the largest number of voters possible.”
Use of Internet
Although she has no campaign website, she says her husband (who is also her campaign manager) “is devoting time to developing a broad Internet based strategy,” explaining:
“Michael will be using social media and a strategic email strategy.”
And the tool she used last time—slate mailers—will also be utilized, she says, terming them “the most cost-effective way to reach the voters” and “the process that’s the most fruitful for judicial elections.”
If contributions don’t roll in, her campaign will not be impaired, Olson says, explaining:
“I’m very, very grateful to receive what funds I have received and hopefully will receive, but I am prepared to campaign. I am not relying on other people’s money for this election.”
She has been endorsed by the Los Angeles Times, the Democratic Party, and the MetNews.
—Roger M. Grace
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company