Tuesday, May 6, 2014
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 97
Supervising City Prosecutor Pitted Against Deputy District Attorney
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
Songhai “Sunny” Armstead, a supervising deputy in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, is competing for a Los Angeles Superior Court open seat with Deputy District Attorney Teresa P. Magno.
Both are Bruins, both are rated “qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and both are Democrats, neither one of whom bagged the County Central Committee’s endorsement.
Armstead says she’s had broader experience than Magno; Magno says she’s done what Armstead has, and more.
Candidate Seeks Election Based on Her Being An African-American
Fifty years ago or so, an African American running for a political office would have been identified in any newspaper article reporting on the candidacy as a “Negro.”
Race consciousness has largely evaporated. Running this year for the Los Angeles Superior Court, the racial identity of Supervising Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney Songhai “Sunny” Armstead would be apt to draw no mention in the press except for one factor:
She is soliciting votes on the basis of being an African American.
Armstead’s theme, in an interview with the MetNews, was that she should be elected because no person of her race has been placed by voters on the Los Angeles Superior Court since unification of the municipal and superior courts in 2000.
In an April 27 appearance at the City of Refuge, a Gardena church, she told the assemblage of African Americans that they should vote for her because “I’m a judge for you.” In her address, she took a swipe at insensitivity of the bench and most of the other judicial candidates.
The Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluations Committee, which had tentatively rated Armstead “qualified,” last week brought her in for an interview—although she had not appealed the rating—so she could explain the remarks in Gardena. It did not change her rating.
Armstead sometimes uses the first name of “Songhay” and, except for purposes of the current election, goes by the surname of “Miguda-Armstead.”
In the meeting at MetNews offices, she complains:
“Since the courts consolidated, or unified I should say, that there hasn’t been an African American elected.”
Bobbi Tillmon, then a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner, was elected without opposition in 2006. But she was “not one on the ballot,” Armstead notes.
Of the fact that voters have not elected an African American to the bench in any contested election since unification, she says:
“That made me sad.”
Four African Americans have run for judgeships from 2000 to the present, all losing, the candidate points out.
The four are C. Edward Mack (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010), Bob Henry (2004, 2006, 2008), Lori Jones (2004, 2008), and Stella Owens-Murrell (2004).
An African American was, in fact, elected to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2000, although running for a different office. Unification came about after the judicial races were in place; two African Americans ostensibly competed for an Inglewood Municipal Court seat but the victor, Patricia Titus, automatically gained election to the Superior Court.
SONGHAI ARMSTEAD and TERESA P. MAGNO
If she prevails at the polls on June 3, Armstead will be the first African American since 1996 chosen by voters in a contested race designated on the ballot as being for the Los Angeles Superior Court. In 1996, an African American judge, Reginald Dunn (since retired), beat off an election challenge. The last time a non-incumbent black candidate gained a Superior Court judgeship in the county through election was 1988, when then-Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Sherill Luke won over a court commissioner.
An African American, Jackie Lacey, has been elected as district attorney in the county, Armstead notes, then adds:
“But we have no judges. It’s interesting. I just find that a little bit shocking….
“I think it would be important for our bench to be diverse.”
Here’s part of her message to African Americans at a church service:
“Out of 30 people who are running and 15 open seats, I’m the only African American running. Why is that significant?
“You heard about realignment, you heard about the injustice that happens in our court system already.
“I’m sure we all know who’s in our jails, and who will come before judges in court, right? People who look a lot like the people in this room. People who look a lot like me.
“I’ve been a prosecuting attorney and I’ve seen how things do not work in our system. I see how people who are disenfranchised, do not have appropriate education, or come from underrepresented communities do not get access to fair justice.
“And part of the problem is that the judges do not have the same life experiences that we have, they don’t have the same empathy, they don’t have the same understanding. They cannot relate, they have very narrow experiences, so when they see a person come before them, they think everyone who comes before them is a horrible gang member or a violent criminal.
“Our jails are full of non-violent people who either have substance abuse problems, mental health issues, lack of education, who are foster kids. Those people don’t need to be in jail.
“You have the power to change that. There are 15 open seats right now. I am the only African American who is running. There is only one Chicano running. Can you guess who else is running?
“Are they people who care about people in this room? Probably not. I can’t speak for them, but probably not.”
Those 15 seats include three that have effectively been filled inasmuch as only one candidate filed for it. There are three Mexican Americans in contests for judgeships (former Senate Majority Leader Charles Caldeorn, Deputy City Attorney Tom Griego, and Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Emma Castro), as well as one of the three candidates who drew no opposition, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Serena Murrillo, being a Chicana.
Armstead also says in remarks before the congregation:
“If you do not show up, it’s the same as voting against us. I’m a judge for you….
“We have black legislators, we have a black president, we don’t have black judges. We need representation in all the different parts of government.”
She says the Lord guided her to talk about Deborah, described in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. Deborah, a judge of Israel, stirred a rebellion over unjust conditions.
“She was a warrior judge, she was a woman,” Armstead says. “That, I know, can be me.”
Armstead appeared on April 23 on an online radio show, “Let’s Talk Politics!”
A video of the broadcast, available online, shows her arguing, as she did four days later at the Gardena church, for her election based on race, declaring, “It’s important that we diversify the bench.”
Armstead is seen telling interviewer Dallas Fowler:
“Once elected, I will be the first African American, female or otherwise, elected since the courts were unified, and the vote went county-wide.”
(Los Angeles Superior Court elections have been county-wide since the first one, on Nov. 1, 1879.)
She notes that she is “of multiple races, but African American.”
Armstead tells of her work in setting up diversion programs and comments:
“I think I’ve done a really good job of sort of being an advocate in creating new opportunities for people in programs that I’ve developed, but I think the next step is influencing my peers on the judiciary, God willing that that would be the position that I take.”
Telling why she thinks she’s better qualified than her adversary, she says:
“My opponent’s experience has been only as a prosecutor of hard-core gang activity, in the DA’s Office, and that’s it. I’ve done a variety of things. I’ve created programs. I’ve taught. I’ve trained LAPD officers, I’ve trained judges, I’ve trained prosecuting and defense attorneys.
“Actually, I’m the only person that you can Google, running for judge in all 15 seats, that a number of things come up, about the work that I’ve done and how I’ve affected the justice system….There’s no one else who has the vast experience from civil to criminal work, including mediation.”
Lauded by Beck
Last year, Los Angeles Chief of Police Charlie Beck wrote to the city Police Commission to recommend that it bestow on Armstead its Distinguished Service Medal. His communiqué says:
“In 2006, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department (Department) and several primary service providers in the Skid Row area, entered into an organized effort to address quality of life, crime and public health issues. Assistant Supervising City Attorney Songhai Miguda-Armstead was selected to direct the Los Angeles City Attorney’s involvement in this collaboration. Thus, the Central Area Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) was born, with Songhai Miguda-Armstead serving at the forefront of a partnership between the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and the task force dedicated by the Department. Together, these individuals were tasked with developing and implementing a system of enforcement, enhancement, and outreach that would focus on reducing crime and eliminating urban blight and decay.”
The memo goes on to say:
“The meticulous and innovative effort put forth by Assistant Supervising City Attorney Songhai Miguda-Armstead has resulted in breakthrough programs, not only incredible Community-based policing, but ‘community-based government’ efforts. Songhai Miguda-Armstead’s untiring efforts and dedication to the SCI’s mission has literally been responsible for saving individual lives. For her outstanding collaborative efforts, commitment, and relentless perseverance in creating a safer community within Skid Row, she is undoubtedly deserving of the Departments Police Commission Distinguished Service Medal.”
The commission did confer the medal on Armstead.
Moonlights as Executive
Amstead is a 38-year-old divorcee. Although she has two children, ages 3 and 16, she also has time to tend to a business she has set up.
She is CEO of Songhai Solutions, LLP. According to its website, it “provides hands on conflict management services to help resolve conflicts within institutions, organizations, the workplace, and the community,” offering such services as “mediation, facilitation, conciliation, arbitration, dialogue, settlement conferencing, and conflict management and prevention training.”
In addition, Armstead maintains a webpage on Facebook titled “Tiaras and Combat Boots,” self-described as “a page for Women (ages 16-106) who are also Warriors...and for the men that love them.”
Armstead received her undergraduate degree from UCLA, where she was the first African American female president of the Student Bar Association. Her law degree is also from UCLA.
She was admitted to practice on Dec. 20, 2003.
Asked what organizations she belongs to, she mention three: Black Women Lawyers Association, Black Women Prosecutors, and the Langston Bar Association.
Armstead is endorsed by the head of her office, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and by two former city attorneys, Rocky Delgadillo, under whom she served, and one from before her time, Ira Reiner (later district attorney). Also vouching for her are 20 Los Angeles Superior Court judges, including Presiding Judge David S. Wesley (who is co-endorsing both candidates in the race) and Court of Appeal Justices Laurence Rubin and Steven Perren.
Her campaign consultant is David Gould.
Immigrant From Philippines Found Expectations for Her To Be Low
Deputy Los Angeles District Attorney Teresa P. Magno well remembers “College Counseling Day” at John Marshall High School.
It was a day when it became clear to her she was perceived as having no potential for lofty achievement and rejected the fate prognosticated for her.
She had come to the United States but a short time before, in 1997, at age 16, from the Philippines, where she was born and reared, accompanying her mother and three brothers. The family had once been affluent in their homeland, but had been stripped of their land by the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos, deposed shortly before their emigration, Magno recounts. Her mother, she says, though well educated in their homeland, now had “very limited financial means” and was separated from her husband who, Magno relates, had become, in light of the oppression, “unbearable,” and with whom she presently has no contact.
Magno says that the counselor handed her some brochures for community colleges “that she said had great nursing programs,” continuing:
“I told her that I wasn’t interested in nursing, and she asked me what I wanted to be, and I said that I wanted to be a lawyer. And then she said, ‘You know, it’s good to have high aspirations, Teresa, but you have to be realistic, so take these brochures.’
“I took those brochures, threw them away, applied to every university that gave me a fee waiver….
“So, when I got accepted to every university to which I applied, non-nursing programs, I brought all my letters to her, and I showed it to her, and she seemed genuinely happy for me.”
Magno initially mentions the surname of the counselor, but then asks that it not be used in print, so that the woman not be embarrassed.
“Two years after coming to this country, I went to UCLA undergrad,” Magno says, with pride.
She then attended the law school at UCLA, where she was president of her graduating class.
Magno still has “high aspirations.”
She wants to be a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. And she says her background has caused her to develop the compassion, respect for people, and interest in justice that would enable her to perform the role she seeks.
Disagrees With Opponent
Magno met with the MetNews right after her opponent was interviewed. Advised of Songhai Armstead’s claim that she should be elected because no African American has won a contested election since unification took place in 2000, Magno says:
“I don’t believe that any Filipino American has ever been elected to the bench. I believe that Filipino Americans are more under-represented on the bench.”
(Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mel Red Recana, who was born in the Philippines and is the first Filipino American judge in the United States, gained a Los Angeles Municipal Court seat in 1981 through appointment, and became a Superior Court judge as the result of unification.)
Last week, the candidate viewed the video of Armstead’s appearance at a black church, and provides this comment:
“I am very disappointed that Ms. Armstead has injected race into this election. In her inflammatory speech, she misleads by clearly implying that there are only two people of color in a field of 30 candidates. She also alleges that the non-African American judicial candidates do not care about African Americans. More importantly, she attacks the integrity of the bench in arguing that non-African American judges, ‘…think everyone that comes before them is a horrible gang member or a violent criminal…’ Such remarks are insulting and irresponsible. This election should be about who is the more qualified candidate, not race-based justification for casting one’s vote.”
Armstead was asked, by e-mail, for a response to Magno’s statement, but did not reply.
Claims Superior Credentials
Magno says she has done everything Armstead has done, and more, declaring:
“I’ve been a lawyer for 17 years. I’ve been a deputy district attorney for 15 years. Trial-wise, I’ve done the misdemeanors, I’ve done 10 misdemeanor jury trials, but in addition to those, I’ve done 81 felony trials. Part of the 81 includes 41 gang-related murders, and two of those were death penalty cases. I’ve also done civil for two years.”
Magno’s ballot designation is “Gang Murder Prosecutor.” Armstead’s is “Supervising Criminal Prosecutor.”
Does it sound as if Armstead has a higher post than Magno; that she supervises Magno?
“My consultant liked my designation better,” Magno responds, saying that voters “like knowing the person they’re electing are in the front lines.”
Her consultant is Kevin Acebo, a former deputy mayor of the City of Los Angeles and former political director of the California Democratic Party, who is a newcomer to judicial elections.
Magno, 43, is married to Deputy District Attorney John Portillo. “He’s my campaign manager,” she says.
A colleague says that Magno is “not a particularly good trial lawyer.” However, a higher up in the office terms her “very capable, very solid.”
Magno is endorsed by District Attorney Jackie Lacey, former District Attorney Steve Cooley, Court of Appeal Justice Judith Ashmann-Gerst, and numerous law enforcement agencies, and 53 judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Despite her opponent’s plea for support based on her race, nine of those 53 judges supporting Magno are African American.
They are Judges Beverley Bourne, Kelvin Filer, Lia Martin, David Milton (recently retired), Ronald Skyers, Eric Taylor, Laura Walton, Allen Webster, and Victor Wright.
Buys Candidate Statement
One decision made by her campaign which could cause the election effort to succeed or fail is the expenditure of $88,000 on a candidate statement on the sample ballot. In recent elections, political consultants have advised against placement of that statement on the theory that money is more effectively spent on slate mailers.
Magno says that in light of the proliferation of slate mailers, those pieces might become more of a nuisance and less of a guide.
She says that although slate mailers are generally credited with being the factor resulting in campaign victories, “causation is not really clear.”
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company