Friday, May 18, 2012
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 78
Judge’s Administrative Act Sparks Election Challenge
Long Beach private practitioner Kenneth R. Hughey is running against Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James D. Otto because Otto, as supervising judge in Long Beach, shifted veteran Judge J.D. Lord to lower-level judicial duties that were previously performed by a commissioner.
The court no longer employs the commissioner owing to sagging court finances.
Lord endorses Hughey—but is the only judge who does. Well over 100 jurists have endorsed Otto.
The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. has rated Otto “exceptionally well qualified.” Hughey’s rating is “not qualified.”
Otto has the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, as well as that of the MetNews.
The challenge to Otto is not generally regarded as a serious one.
JAMES D. OTTO
Otto Gets a Surprise: An Election Challenge by a ‘Nice Man’
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James D. Otto is not the sort of judge who would be expected to draw an election challenge. He hasn’t made a ruling that riled a large segment of the public, hasn’t been the subject of Commission on Judicial Performance proceedings, and doesn’t have an unusual, foreign-sounding name.
“It came as a surprise when I learned that someone else had taken out papers for Office #78,” Otto recounts.
He was challenged by Kenneth Hughey, 80, a former aerospace engineer who had a second career in law, serving as a deputy Los Angeles city attorney from 1998-2011. Hughey is upset that Otto, supervising judge for the South District—that is, Long Beach—removed Judge J.D. Lord from a courtroom in which felonies were tried and put him in one where he handles misdemeanor arraignments and infractions.
Lord has been a judge since 1991 when he was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, and was elevated to the Superior Court in 2000 by virtue of unification,
Hughey contends the reassignment was punitive, based on Lord balking at the imposition of hefty traffic fines pursuant to a schedule, while Otto asserts it was an administrative necessity.
Otto was under orders to close three courtrooms, as of the beginning of this year, in light of the court’s shriveling budget. This was to include one of the four criminal trial courts that were not direct-calendar courts.
This meant, he says, that the three judges who would retain their assignments would have to be those “who I thought could handle the increased load.”
The statistics showing case dispositions by the respective judges and his own “experience”—observing which judges regularly solicited matters during down time—caused him to conclude “that I needed to close his [Lord’s] courtroom,” Otto says.
He explains that he felt that closing that particular courtroom would have the “least impact.”
Otto recites that he consulted the assistant supervising judge in the district and the past supervising judge, and that his overall plan—specifying Lord, by name—was presented to the supervising judges of all the districts at a one-day conference last December. His decision to reassign Lord did not draw disapproval from the other supervising judges, nor was it vetoed by Presiding Judge Lee Edmon, Otto says.
So, Lord was shifted; he was unhappy; he conveyed his displeasure to persons in his bailiwick, including Hughey.
Now, Otto finds himself a combatant in a political race.
“I’ve had to raise a lot of money,” he says, as well as putting about $7,000 of his own funds into the campaign.
“Some people are relishing in the fact that they’re causing me stress,” he remarks, noting that the campaign is also “putting stress on my wife.”
He acknowledges, however:
“We live in a democracy and Superior Court judges run for re-election. My opponent had every right to file against me or anyone else up for election.”
In mid-February, after Hughey filed for Office No. 78, Otto denominated his challenger “a nice man.”
He also said at that time: “I do think that J.D. put him up to this,” which Lord denied.
Otto has received a torrent of endorsements from colleagues, as well as monetary contributions from many of them—which the judge terms “heartening.”
He says he is disappointed by some of the allegations on Hughey’s website which he terms “inappropriate, inaccurate.”
The website says:
“At the end of 2010, the Long Beach court started to rotate some of the traffic arraignments to the regular trial courts because the police had increased their issuance of traffic cites by 150%! The traffic courts couldn’t handle the massive increase.
“Judge Lord stated his belief that the police were issuing citations for minor offenses, which had no real bearing on safety, just to balance their budget and the fines imposed by the court were unreasonably high. He didn’t think judges should not be a partner to this blatant shake-down of the average citizen.
“However, the court system had a vested interest in keeping Lord quiet. The court makes millions of dollars off of these same citations and the last thing court management needed was to have one of its judges sounding the alarm.
“And what court management am I talking about? Judge Otto. He became the supervising judge in January of 2011 and he immediately set out to make Judge Lord follow the company policy on fines.”
Otto brands all this “ridiculous,” noting that the police do not get any take from traffic tickets, adding:
“Fines and fees don’t go to the courts. A small percentage goes to the [Administrative Office of the Courts], the rest goes to the general fund.”
The supervising judge says he did have a conversation with Lord around March or April of last year. “Judge Lord was suspending everybody’s traffic fines” except where the citee had opted for traffic school, Otto recounts.
He says he expressed the hope to Lord that he was, as required, exercising “case by case discretion.”
Otto disclaims any connection between that conversation and the shift in Lord’s assignment. Lord apparently agrees; in an interview on Feb. 13, he said “it’s hard to imagine something as minor as that” being the cause of the reassignment.
Performance in Office
Hughey has not directly questioned Otto’s fitness to perform as a judge, except to say on his website:
“Otto’s administrative decisions tell you everything you need to know. It shows you Otto’s mens rea [requisite mental element of a crime].”
The Los Angeles County Bar Assn.’s “exceptionally well qualified” rating does not go to every challenged judge; Judge Lynn Olson this year was branded “not qualified.”
A letter to Otto from LACBA’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee advises:
“You received the ‘Exceptionally Well Qualified’ rating because the Committee believes that you possess the professional ability, experience, competence, integrity and temperament considered to be remarkable or of extraordinary superiority so that, without real doubt, you are deemed fit to perform the judicial function with distinction.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley says Otto is “an excellent judge” who “has contributed to the court” and has done “a commendable job” in supervising the South District.
Former Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger hails Otto as “an excellent judge and a strong leader.”
“Over the years, he became a ‘go to’ person for any assignment which presented itself and he mastered all put before him. He was an obvious choice to lead the court in Long Beach.
“As a supervising judge, he has garnered the respect of his colleagues and the bar in a time of great stress for the Los Angeles Superior Court. In other words, he is the right person in the right job at the right time.”
Czuleger adds that it is “sad that anyone would even contemplate trying to unseat a great asset of our court, especially when we need him most.”
Woodland Hills attorney David Hoffman says Otto “loves law” and is “dedicated to the institution of justice.”
Otto, a native Californian, obtained his law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1974, then returned to Los Angeles. He became a partner in Cummins, White & Breidenbach (later Cummins & White, LLP) in 1978, serving as its managing partner for 11 years.
He was elected to the State Bar Board of Governors in 1998.
In 2001, Otto became a partner in the Long Beach firm of Altman Otto & Kong. He was inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers the following year.
His appointment to the Los Angeles Superior Court came on July 23, 2003.
KENNETH R. HUGHEY
War Hero, Ex-Prosecutor Mounts Campaign, Draws Inappreciable Support
Kenneth R. Hughey’s major endorser will not be voting for Hughey. It would be unlawful if he did.
The endorser is U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 Republican nominee for president.
It is not commonplace for Los Angeles Superior Court candidates to receive endorsements from political leaders residing in other states, but this is not an ordinary election. It’s one in which a challenge to a sitting judge is predicated on a single administrative action of the judge, and in which the challenger’s military record is trumpeted, with scant attention to any attainment in law practice.
McCain explains his support of the man for whom he can’t vote by saying:
“Our country needs people of the highest character to serve as judges. Having known Ken Hughey since we served as prisoners of war together in Vietnam, I know he has that character. Ken has my support and endorsement for election as a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge.
“Everyone who knows Ken can attest to his unquestioned integrity.
“With 564 combat missions, two Silver Stars, three distinguished Flying Crosses and four Purple Hearts, his courage is obvious.
“With 13 years prosecuting criminals and gang members and his over 40 years in the aerospace business, his experience is outstanding.”
(The Sept. 5, 2008 edition of the Long Beach Press-Telegram featured a photo of Hughey, taken in a local bar, watching on television McCain’s acceptance speech at the GOP National Convention.)
Hughey’s campaign website lists five other former POWs of high military rank who endorse him.
Consultants Are Endorsers
Also mentioned as supporters are four “Local Business and Community Leaders.” Two of them, Roxanna Ayers and Patrick Furey, are principals of Veritas Campaigns, LLC, the outfit that is running Hughey’s campaign. A third “leader” is a union vice president, who happens to be Patrick Furey’s mother. The fourth is president of the South Bay Chamber of Commerce.
Under “Elected Officials,” four endorsers are identified. There’s a former congressman, a member of the Torrance City Council (who is Furey’s father), and two members of the Hawthorne City Council, both of whose campaigns were managed by Veritas.
Hughey is endorsed by the Justice Political Action Committee and five individuals whose names are set forth under the heading, “Los Angeles County Voters.”
Veritas has not previously handled a judicial campaign.
Won’t Be Questioned
A call was placed to Hughey by the MetNews on Feb. 10 seeking a statement of why he was running. The call was apparently put through to him contrary to his expectations, because the lawyer answered: “Are you back on the line, your honor?”
After the caller identified himself and his purpose in phoning, Hughey declared that he was not presently prepared to state his reasons for running.
An e-mail was dispatched to Hughey that day, after information was garnered from other sources, querying whether he was running as a favor to Lord and because Lord was shifted to an arraignment court. A response came from Hughey on Monday, Feb. 13. These portions were quoted in a column in the following day’s edition:
?“That decision [to reassign Lord] took Judge Lord, one of the best-qualified and experienced judges in the state, out of a trial court and put him in an infraction and misdemeanor arraignment court. Any objective analysis of his decision will readily show that it was inappropriate. I believe the decision demonstrates a fundamental flaw in judicial discretion by Judge Otto that is very informative of what kind of judicial officer he is. If Judge Otto makes such poor decisions involving a fellow bench officer, imagine how bad his decisions might be when dealing with litigants who appear in his court.”
?“My view of the situation is that no reasonable manager would have ever made the decision.”
?“It is abundantly obvious that Judge Otto’s assignment decision was not in the best interests of the public or the court, but merely out of personal animus. It is strong evidence of the kind of judge he is. I would never make a judicial decision for purely personal reasons, and that is why I would be a better judge than my opponent.”
Not quoted was this more emotional passage:
“The God-awful fact that this decision was carefully planned and orchestrated by Judge Otto is a window into the soul of the man. If he can deliberately plot, coldly execute, and callously live with such an unjust and costly situation, what kind of decisions is he capable of rendering for litigants in the split second, give-and-take, world involved in criminal matters?
“Who would want to be in a courtroom where the judge has proven himself to be someone who will make judicial decisions based on vindictiveness? Who would want to be in a courtroom where the judge has demonstrated that he will trade what is in the best interest of the public just to settle some petty personal score? In other words, who would want to be in Judge Otto’s court?”
Communication Director Writes
On April 10, Hughey’s newly appointed communications director, Gabrial Groves, sent an e-mail saying, in part:
“This email is being sent in hopes you will give Ken Hughey’s responses to your February interview additional consideration in the future when you review the attached white paper on the subject.
“After reviewing Ken’s responses to your questions and discussing his participation in the interview, I had to spend a couple of days in bed with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black...
“But now it’s time to ensure what he meant to say is truly what is conveyed in the results of the exchange.”
Attached was a position paper seemingly reflecting Groves’ reasons for supporting Hughey, in which Groves declares:
“Hughey is taking these issues to the voters June 5th. This isn’t about one poor management decision. I don’t know how many a sitting judge is allowed to make, but if it was my family member, one is one too many.”
An e-mail from the MetNews in response says, in part:
“We have met this year with all candidates for open seats and some candidates for the other seats. If Mr. Hughey wants his positions understood, we would be pleased to have him come to our office, unaccompanied by a spokesperson, and be interviewed.”
A response from Groves protests:
“If your argument is sound, then it seems [White House Press Secretary] Jay Carney should be running the country, speeches should be written by only the deliverer, and all the public relations firms in the country are bogus.”
Hughey would not be interviewed.
A follow-up e-mail from Groves sets forth:
“The comment about the Johnny Walker Black etc was written in humor; It couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I know what you can do with ‘quotes’ like that, and wanted my intention in writing for the record.”
Hughey’s website denigrates Otto not only based on his “de facto demotion” of Lord and the need to show opposition to excessive traffic fines, but also on the bases of which governor appointed Otto and a Judicial Council committee on which he serves.
“How in the world, you may ask, did Otto become a judge in the first place?” the website says. “He was appointed by Gray Davis, one of only two governors in the history of this country to be recalled from office.”
Hughey also wants to blame the failed and recently scrapped $2 billion Court Case Management System on Otto, while in the same breath tying CCMS to the excessive traffic fines Lord opposes. The website says:
“By the way, want to know where the money from fines go? The courts just spent over 500 million dollars on a software system that was supposed to cost 260 million and it still didn’t work. True projected cost? Over 2 billion dollars!...The program was finally abandoned but all of the people who had to pay huge fines and fees for minor offenses aren’t getting their money back. Why did the Judicial Council’s Technology Committee champion this failed system for so long, and why did they fail to kill it quicker? Ask the person who brags about his service on that committee for the last 8 of his 8 1/2 year judicial career….guess who? – Judge Otto.”
Judge John David Lord: Real Party in Interest in Otto-Hughey Contest
Many view the race as a contest that is actually between Otto and Lord, with Hughey acting as Lord’s surrogate.
One local pundit notes that Lord, who was also up for election this year, could have run for the same seat as Otto; both would have had a ballot designation indicating a judgeship on the Superior Court; Lord might have prevailed based on the masterfulness of his name.
In any event, that didn’t happen.
Lord, contacted on Feb. 13, said he did, indeed, endorse Hughey, citing his war record, and remarking:
“I would endorse Kenneth Hughey if he was running against me.”
Yet, Lord is not listed on the Hughey website as an endorser. Lord says he stands by his earlier statement.
Denies Orchestrating Run
In response to a recent request for comment on the race, Lord insists in an e-mail that he did not push Hughey into the race, declaring:
“Contrary to various rumors, I didn’t convince, cajole, or (my personal favorite) coerce [Hughey] into this challenge. Anyone seeking proof of this negative should first ask themselves what form that might take.
“Like any experienced attorney preparing a case, Hughey set up the meeting to confirm the story he had heard regarding my year-long odyssey with Otto with its capstone reassignment. After that confirmation he told me he wanted to challenge Otto. Mr. Hughey has told several people a much-abridged version of my response … he says I told him he’d be crazy to do so. That wasn’t my full and exact response.
“In point of fact, contrary to the campaign-manager-inspired rumor that I talked Hughey into challenging Otto, during our lunch I discussed with him the general belief about the hazards of challenging an incumbent judge and said no matter what the situation may be, it would be safer for someone who didn’t normally practice in state court to mount such a challenge. He said those lawyers wouldn’t know, and if informed, they wouldn’t care, and even if they did, when it got down to the wire, they simply wouldn’t do it. I have first-hand knowledge that at least two other lawyers considered challenging Otto. In the end though, Hughey’s prediction proved correct.”
“Some people want to attach conspiracy theories to the fact that Hughey seems personally offended by Otto’s actions. Hughey knows I am a Vietnam veteran. He knows that I, along with the rest of the 3rd Marine Division, would have marched north to rescue him and the other POW’s if the politicians let us go. So, in addition to whatever general conclusions he may draw, is it likely that Hughey would be personally offended by Otto’s actions?
“Vietnam vets share a unique camaraderie, so if Hughey sees a course of conduct that he thinks is wrongfully inspired, aimed at a Vietnam veteran, by someone who was absent from that conflict, he is likely to get a little angry, as most veterans, and certainly any combat veterans, would readily understand. But the focus should not be on whether Hughey is personally offended, it should be on whether his conclusions regarding Otto are accurate. I must say though that having a person who had previously only been a professional acquaintance display genuine anger over this whole situation while some people that I’ve known well for years became shrinking violets was illuminating. But I’ve gotten to know Mr. Hughey much better since his campaign began and I’ve witnessed the courage and incorruptible professionalism of many others, which has certainly been a very positive experience.”
In his statement, Lord puts forth his own case:
“As for me, I’ll just do my job in the in-custody misdemeanor arraignment court. Over the past forty-one years, the taxpayers of this County have quite literally spent several million dollars on me while I worked my way up through the criminal justice system, honing my craft as a deputy sheriff, [deputy] public defender, [deputy] city attorney, [deputy] district attorney, and judge, including my time serving as [a pro tem] Associate Justice on the Court of Appeal, until I finally arrived at my current level of legal education and experience. Let me put that enormous investment to work by trying to find a better and more legally correct way of asking people accused of public intoxication….How do you plead?”
Lord is being snubbed by other judges in the Long Beach Courthouse, it has been learned.
—Roger M. Grace
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company