Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Otto Is Targeted by Election Challenger Based on Administrative Action
By ROGER M. GRACE
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James D. Otto has incurred an election challenge by a sole practitioner who is enraged that Otto, as supervising judge in Long Beach, shifted a long-time member of the court to an unfavorable assignment.
Kenneth R. Hughey, who retired last year as a Los Angeles deputy city attorney, questions Otto’s judgment in assigning Judge John David “J.D.” Lord to Department 2, an arraignment court.
Lord was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1991 by Gov. George Deukmejian, and elevated to the Superior Court in 2000 through unification. He previously served in Los Angeles County as a deputy district attorney, deputy public defender, and deputy sheriff.
Otto had been ordered to shut down three courtrooms, in light of the fiscal crisis; one of those courtrooms was presided over by Lord. Lord was sent to Department 2 as of the first of this year, and on Thursday afternoons, he presides over misdemeanor drug court in Department L.
These are low-level jobs, previously performed by a commissioner—but the commissioner, Gary Bounds, consented to a golden-handshake early retirement, and some judge had to take on the assignments.
“J.D. Lord is furious,” one judge reports, that he was the one tapped.
Hughey says, in an e-mail yesterday (in response to an inquiry):
“That decision 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.”
The problem with the analysis is that it assumes that Otto is deficient as a judge because he made what Hughey regards as a bad call as an administrator.
Significantly, Hughey points to no instances where Otto’s performance on the bench has drawn criticism.
“My view of the situation is that no reasonable manager would have ever made the decision” to assign Lord to arraignments, Hughey insists.
Even if Otto did blunder in connection with that one assignment decision—one which, on the surface, is curious—it does not mean that there has been a succession of blunders. Even if it were assumed, for sake of argument, that Otto simply does not have a talent for managing, that would mean only that he should be removed as a supervising judge—a contention that should be addressed to Presiding Judge Lee Edmon—not removed by voters as a judge.
From what I’ve heard, Otto has a keen analytical mind and knows the law.
Hughey also says:
“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.”
The challenger ascribes much too much significance to one administrative call.
Was the decision made on the basis of “personal animus”?
Lord says there had not been any hostility between him and Otto.
He relates they did have a conversation recently in which he expressed the view that traffic fines had become excessive and Otto disagreed, but adds that “it’s hard to imagine something as minor as that” sparking the reassignment.
When he was told of his assignment for 2012, Lord recounts, “it was not a hallelujah day.”
He says he is “starting back at an absolute entry level, or lower, position.”
Nonetheless, he vowed, he’ll do his best in the assignment, and has not contemplated retiring.
Otto said Friday of the challenge by Hughey:
“I do think that J.D. put him up to this.”
Lord denies that, remarking yesterday that one of the “most basic functions of a judge” is to look into the facts before coming to a conclusion.
“Otto didn’t call me or ask me if I instigated it,” he says.
Does he endorse Hughey?
“I would endorse Kenneth Hughey if he was running against me,” Lord responds.
He outlines Hughey’s war record and comments:
“This is a complete hero.”
Hughey flew 564 combat missions, 106 of them over North Vietnam, before being shot down, 40 miles north of Hanoi, on July 6, 1967. He was a prisoner of war for nearly six years. His decorations have included two Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars, and four Purple Hearts.
Hughey, an affable 79-year-old, was born and reared in Tennessee, and speaks with a marked southern drawl.
“Ken is a nice man,” Otto says.
Another jurist calls him “a wonderful man.”
This newspaper profiled Hughey on May 22, 2002, his 70th birthday. Then a deputy city attorney assigned to San Pedro, he had been admitted to the bar only five years earlier—on June 8, 1997.
“When most people are planning retirement, the record-breaking fighter pilot, ex-Vietnam POW and aerospace administrator was studying for the California bar exam,” the article says, noting that he passed it “before graduating from law school.”
The article quotes his wife, Sue Hughey, as saying:
“When he joined the City Attorney’s Office...he said he wants to be a judge.”
Kenneth Hughey says in yesterday’s e-mail:
“Many people know that I wanted to become a judge upon retirement from the City Attorney’s Office. I’m a life-long Republican and the governor is a Democrat so my option was to run against several other prosecutors vying for a couple of open seats or find an incumbent who should not remain on the bench. Then, out of the clear blue, I see an action by a judge in my own back yard that virtually screams out the words ‘I’m not fit for this job.’ ”
For Hughey to reach so sweeping a conclusion based on one piece of evidence does draw into question just how well he would be able to function as a judge.
He just doesn’t put on much of a case for yanking Otto from his post.
Otto does possess impressive credentials. He has nearly nine years of judicial experience.
In 2001, he became a founder of a Long Beach insurance defense firm. For 25 years before that, he was with Cummins & White, including service as its managing partner.
He’s a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and served on the State Bar Board of Governors.
Hughey seeks to minimize Otto’s experience, saying:
“In addition to better management skills, I believe that the fact that my experience as a prosecutor who has spent many years prosecuting criminal cases, including the prosecution of hundreds of gang members, makes me more qualified than Judge Otto, who was an insurance lawyer for his entire career prior to his appointment by Gray Davis, one of only two governors in American history to be recalled.”
During his 27 years in law practice, Otto, in the civil arena, handled much complex litigation. Hughey, during his stint as a prosecutor—which lasted no more than 14 years—did not handle complex cases; he prosecuted persons for misdemeanors.
Are we to look down on every judge appointed by Gray Davis based on that governor’s political fate?
I don’t think it to be difficult to peg who the worthier candidate is in this race.
BACK TO ‘CASA’—The good news is that tomorrow night, the Italian American Lawyers Assn. returns to Casa Italiana, north of Chinatown. It’s a “homecoming.” The IALA met there since its seminal year, 1997…up until last year. The president in 2011 boycotted the venue—which features Italian home cooking—and held meetings at more exotic and trendy spots, with him picking up most of the tab. Many members will enjoy being back.
The bad news is that the speaker is Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, a candidate for district attorney. Listening to that bloviator for an hour will be difficult to endure.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company