Wednesday, April 16, 2014
James B. Pierce
There are judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court who are lazy. There are judges of that court who are inept. A campaign challenge to any unworthy holder of judicial office would be a public service.
No such judge has been challenged this year.
One judge has attracted an opponent in the June 3 primary: James B. Pierce, who sits in Long Beach. He has 25 years of judicial experience and has incurred but a scant number of reversals, no chidings in appellate court opinions, no discipline by the Commission on Judicial Performance.
OST MEANINGFUL IS THAT no evidence of unfitness has been put forth by his campaign rival, Deputy District Attorney Carol Najera.
Based on what she’s heard (Najera has never appeared before him), she charges that Pierce is oppressive. The one example she offers is that, on a single occasion, he questioned at excessive length a prospective juror who sought to be released, and eventually was released. Judges do need to guard against prospective jurors worming their way out of service through pretext.
Najera has not produced—in connection with that one episode, or any other—any transcript, any declaration, any specifics.
Our own inquiries convince us that Pierce is, overall, conscientious, knowledgeable and able. He is, nonetheless, on occasion, gruff and abrupt—to his discredit. He warrants demerits for that, but not an ouster.
While some deputies in her office may have shared with Najera negative experiences in Pierce’s courtroom based on the judge’s crustiness, it remains that the Office of District Attorney has not instituted a blanket affidavit policy against him—nor, for that matter, has the Office of Public Defender.
In fact, prosecutors and defense lawyers, public and private—even those who complain the loudest of Pierce’s periodic cantankerousness—agree that Pierce is impartial and that a fair trial is had in his courtroom.
The Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluations Committee has found Pierce “well qualified,” which we believe to be an accurate assessment.
HEN AN INCUMBENT and a challenger enter the ring, they seldom come in as equals. The incumbent has judicial experience and thus, generally speaking, superior qualifications as against a challenger who lacks that asset.
Moreover, the judge possesses, in our view, a rightful expectation of a continuation in office unless a deficiency in his or her performance is demonstrated. Judges are, after all, in a discrete category of officeholders. Holders of other elective offices—the politicians—know that when their terms expire, they will have to run again, and chances of their running without opposition are apt to be slim. On the other hand, lawyers, in becoming judges, have generally relinquished a practice and have committed themselves to a career in the judiciary, aware, of course, of the theoretical prospect of an election challenge but, in light of the rarity of a challenge, not anticipating one absent a failure on their part to adequately carry out their judicial duties.
Najera declares that Pierce has, over a judicial career spanning nearly 30 years, never faced an opponent and, every six years, “has been rubber-stamped into office.” She seems to regard judicial challenges as salutary, something that keeps the elective process alive and hearty.
We see it differently. While any lawyer with 10 years of bar membership has a right to challenge a judge, we believe there is an ethical duty not to do so absent an evident deficiency on the part of the incumbent. The more frequently there occur baseless challenges—or challenges, as in this instance, on a frail foundation—the less attractive an appointment to the bench becomes, and the less likely it is that those best suited for judicial service will be available.
As it is, membership on the Los Angeles Superior Court is considerably less appealing than it used to be. In light of the budget crisis, there are judges without courtrooms and judges with courtroom roommates. This year, there were 14 open seats—that is, there were 14 judges who did not seek another term, doubtlessly some of whom would have run again if work conditions were more favorable. There were three seats that drew but a single candidate.
We reject Najera’s thesis that judicial challenges are necessary to remind judges that they have only six-year terms and are not appointed for life. A judge of the Superior Court is not apt to lack cognizance of the length of the term of California trial judges. To target a judge based on non-existent or scant cause in no way serves the public’s interest. If no incumbent is challenged in a given election year, the power of the electorate to turn a bad judge out of office by selecting the challenger, when circumstances warrant, neither dries up or is forgotten.
AJERA HAS UTTERLY FAILED to make a showing as to why Pierce should be denied continuation in office and, absent such a showing, her election bid should be rejected, right there.
While perceiving no real need to examine the credentials of a challenger who falls short of establish the unworthiness of the incumbent, we generally wind up doing so, anyway, at least in passing.
Najera is a seasoned lawyer but is not known for industriousness or preparedness. It is questionable how keen her sense of fair play is.
When she ran for a Superior Court open seat in 2004, Najera was declared “not qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, through its Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee. This year, a JEEC subcommittee found her not qualified which, by virtue of her failure to participate on the process (by filling out a questionnaire and submitting to an interview), precludes an appeal.
Perhaps Najera is qualified—but if so, barely.
Steve Cooley, as district attorney (2000-2012), frequently made endorsements of multiple candidates in the same race, apparently regarding an endorsement as being more in the nature of a “certification” than an expression of a preference. Most meaningful was when, on rare occasion, he did not endorse a deputy district attorney in a given race—such non-endorsement evidencing a repudiation of that individual. This year, Cooley has continued to make endorsements. His successor, Jackie Lacey, is apparently automatically endorsing any deputy DA in good graces with the office.
We thus find it meaningful that neither Lacey nor Cooley has endorsed Najera.
The choice in this contest is obvious. We urge a vote for Judge James B. Pierce.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company