Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 107
We offer no opinion as to which candidate in this race has the superior credentials. In our view, neither should be a judge.
EPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOAN CHROSTEK was relegated to a low-level assignment in her office after neglecting to follow basic procedures in a case, with that neglect facilitating a slaying. In essence, she shrugs her shoulders, disavowing any responsibility for the consequences of her omissions.
She was prosecuting a man who kidnapped and falsely imprisoned his estranged wife. Chrostek realized, from what she had personally learned and from the Probation Department’s recommendation, that the defendant, Curtis Bernard Harris, was violent and irrational and, if released from custody, might well kill his spouse.
Yet, she put no notes in the file reflecting that perception. In fact, she put no notes in the file, at all.
A “pre-preliminary hearing” (plea bargaining session) was scheduled for Dec. 21, 2007, a day when Chrostek was to be on vacation. She made no arrangement for anyone in her office to cover for her. When the matter was called, another deputy district attorney happened to be in the courtroom and stepped in, on an impromptu basis. A sentence was negotiated, and the DA’s Office agreed that the defendant would be released on his own recognizance for a spell, to “get his affairs in order,” before being sent off to state prison. Chrostek returned from vacation three days later and made no effort to find out what had occurred in the case.
So it was that Harris was on the loose. The crazed husband killed his wife, then committed suicide.
Chrostek points out that she was not the deputy who agreed to the plea bargain. “It was not my fault,” she insists.
Surely, she did not desire the death of the victim, Monica Thomas-Harris, and took no affirmative steps toward effecting the homicide. Nonetheless, but for her negligence in failing to instill in those who would act in her absence an awareness of Harris’s dangerousness, it is doubtful that Harris would have been freed.
This is quite unlike the situation which prompted then-Association of Deputy District Attorneys President Steve Ipsen—since fired as a deputy DA—to orchestrate ill-starred and unwarranted election opposition in 2004, by multiple candidates, to Judges David S. Wesley (then-criminal courts assistant supervising judge, now the Superior Court’s presiding judge) and Dan Oki (then-supervising judge of the criminal courts). Seventy-six persons who were slated to be arraigned on May 28, 2003, were, as the court day came to an end, ordered back the next morning. This occurred at the direction of Oki, conveyed to the commissioner in the arraignments court by Wesley, and was precipitated by a need to avoid overtime in light of the court’s shortage of funds. One of the suspects did not return and, while at large, allegedly committed a murder.
The difference relates to foreseeability. What Oki and Wesley foresaw was that the normal procedure, worked out with the Sheriff’s Department, would have been followed, under which the released suspects would have been re-arrested and held. What the judges did not know was the Los Angeles Police Department was not going to effect those re-arrests, on advice of the Office of City Attorney, advice that was not conveyed to the court. Sheriff’s deputies detained most of the suspects on other pending charges, but 26 were released.
At the time the two judges drew opposition, one of those 26 suspects was charged with murdering a barber. Absent precognition, neither Oki nor Wesley could have foreseen that this particular suspect, whose identity was unknown to them, would kill a barber, or anyone else. By contrast, Chrostek had an actual awareness that Harris, if released, would be apt to slay his wife, as she imparted to the investigating officer.
Not only does Chrostek refuse to accept any responsibility for the fact of the release—which would not have occurred if she had made notes in the file, arranged for someone to make the appearance for her, and briefed that person—but she seeks sympathy for what she has gone through, saying:
“It’s personally taken probably years off my life, because I just never really get over the death of this woman.
“I was the one who interviewed her and filed the case, so it’s been very devastating to me, her death.”
Never mind how devastating it has been to the victim’s two children and her parents; Chrostek wants it to be she who is pitied.
Among the various blunders Chrostek committed in connection with the case, pointed out in a publicly released report of internal review findings, was that she did not file a spousal rape count.
The defendant had compelled his wife, Monica Thomas-Harris, to accompany him in his car to a motel room; forcibly handcuffed her; made her swallow a pill which he said was Ecstasy; and agreed to release her only if she would have sex with him, which she did.
When Chrostek interviewed her, Thomas-Harris acknowledged that she had consented to sexual intercourse.
Chrostek apparently acceded to the legal opinion of the victim that there was consent rather than relying upon what she was taught in her first-year criminal law and torts classes as to the ineffectiveness of consent obtained through duress.
Too, Chrostek lied about her current duties in her ballot designation and, through sly argumentation, tries to portray utter deception to be fact.
She’s listed as a “Major Narcotics Prosecutor.” The problem with the designation she chose is that she does not prosecute narcotics offenders, whether major or minor ones.
Rather, through civil in rem proceedings, she gains orders for seizure of convicted drug dealers’ assets.
While acknowledging, as she must, that she does not criminally prosecute defendants in narcotics cases, Chrostek offers inept rationalizations for her misleading designation.
By virtue of being a deputy district attorney, Chrostek argues, she’s a “prosecutor,” and she “punishes” major narcotics offenders by taking away their assets.
She is playing games with words and revealing a lamentable lack of commitment to the truth.
Despite the patent deceptiveness of Chrostek’s designation, her opponent, shamefully, did not challenge it. She did not have the gusto to file a writ petition—or even short of that, merely telephoning the Office of Registrar-Recorder to point out why the designation should be disallowed.
The political reality is that even if Chrostek were running with the truthful ballot designation of “Deputy District Attorney,” she would, in all probability, defeat her opponent, whose designation is that of “Superior Court Commissioner.” Prosecutors traditionally trounce commissioners at the polls, though not always.
The potent designation of Chrostek as “Major Narcotics Prosecutor” turns probability into near-inevitability, attributable both to Chrostek’s dishonesty in claiming a bogus ballot designation and her opponent’s meekness or laziness in not contesting it.
UPERIOR COURT COMMISSIONER EMMA CASTRO was found “not qualified” by the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation when she sought appointment to a judgeship. There had to have been something of a substantial nature to precipitate that rating.
Castro won’t talk about it. We don’t know what the something was.
She has nearly three years of judicial experience while her opponent has none. Yet, to endorse her blindly—aware that a determination of her unfitness has been made by a state agency that conducts intensive investigations and draws information and impressions from judges and others who normally would not comment—would hardly be sensible.
It is, in our view, irresponsible for Castro to hide from voters information that is crucial to their assessment of her qualifications for the office she seeks.
Too, in refusing to talk about the matter, she has shown herself to be craven.
And it is unconscionable for her to hide behind confidentiality requirements in connection with JNE ratings—requirements that are, under a State Bar rule, expressly inapplicable to candidates—by pretending that she would be in violation of the law if she spoke.
While it is true that a subcommittee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee has found Castro “qualified” for a judgeship—which is her final rating inasmuch as she has not appealed—this does not remove the question as to what it was that caused the JNE rating, and it does not in any way excuse Castro’s silence.
Moreover, with due respect to conscientious members of JEEC, that body simply does not probe as extensively as JNE. We do not know whether the matters of which JNE was cognizant came to the attention of JEEC.
And this year, a substantial question looms as to whether that County Bar unit is comprised of a sufficient number of adequately astute individuals. There are whispered reports of some bizarre tentative ratings and of misguided lines of inquiry at subcommittee sessions.
HIS CONTEST POINTS TO THE NEED for legislative changes.
•Under Government Code §120121.5, reports by JNE of a candidate’s rating, as well as “other information as the State Bar deems pertinent to the qualifications of the candidate,” are sent to the governor; they are confidential—except that, should the governor appoint a candidate with a “not qualified,” rating, “the State Bar may make public this fact.”
There should be another exception to confidentiality. The purpose of JNE reports is that of “providing the Governor with as much information and valued judgment regarding the judicial qualifications of a candidate as is possible,” according to the Legislature’s statement of its intent. If a candidate who has been evaluated by JNE goes on to seek election to a judgeship, voters then stand in the stead of the governor as the appointing authority. They, no less than the governor, need “as much information and valued judgment” about the candidate “as is possible.” Voters therefore need, and should have, access to the JNE report that went to the governor—a report that might very well account for the candidate not having been appointed.
This is to say, whatever Gov. Jerry Brown (or his staff) knew about Castro, voters should know. Our system of government is reliant on voters being informed, and any impediments to the electorate gaining needed information are repugnant to our basic democratic precepts.
Looking at it more broadly, a candidate, in entering a contest for a public office, invites scrutiny, and should be deemed to have waived confidentiality as to any reports in the possession of a governmental entity—even those otherwise exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act—which contain information helpful to voters’ determinations of fitness for office. That would include, where the candidate works for a governmental agency, such as the Office of District Attorney, annual evaluations and records of disciplinary actions.
We suggest that individuals’ right to privacy must yield to the electorate’s need for relevant information. Perhaps it is time for enactment of a “Voters’ Bill of Rights,” a tenet of which would be that government shall not hide from voters facts in its possession concerning the abilities, frailties, or past non-compliance with the law on the part of those who enter the public arena as candidates.
•In the race between Chrostek and Castro, as in the one for Office No. 87 in which Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney Tom Griego, criminal defense lawyer Andrew M. Stein, and Deputy Los Angeles District Attorney Steven P. Schreiner are competing, no candidate, in our estimation, is worthy of election. On the other hand, two of the most meritorious candidates this year are Deputy District Attorney Dayan Mathai and Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Jacqueline Lewis, both in the race for Office No. 61 (along with maritime lawyer B. Otis Felder, a non-viable candidate bereft of qualifications for a judgeship).
Thus, one of two individuals who are, as we assess their qualifications, unsuitable for judgeships (Chrostek and Castro), will be elected; only one of two who are, in our view, eminently qualified (Mathai and Lewis), will gain office.
As we have in the past, we observe that our present elective system makes no sense, and that all candidates for Superior Court open seats should run as a pack—a system used fleetingly in the early 1900s.
There are 11 contests this year for open seats. There are 24 candidates for open seats. The names of all 24, with accurate, current, job titles under the names, should be listed on the ballot with no office numbers, and with those 11 drawing the highest number of votes being elected.
We also repeat our proposal, one not likely to win favor in the foreseeable future—or perhaps ever—that voting in judicial elections be confined to those with the most interest in them and the greatest relevant knowledge: active and judicial members of the State Bar.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company