Thursday, May 29, 2014
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Offices Nos. 54, 61
Two Races: Well-Regarded Prosecutor Faces Seasoned Commissioner
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
In the races for Superior Court Offices 54 and 61 on the June 3 ballot, voters must choose between an accomplished prosecutor and a valued court commissioner.
Deputy District Attorney Shannon Knight will do battle with Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Debra Losnick over seat No. 54 and DDA Dayan Mathai and Commissioner Jacqueline H. Lewis will each try to capture seat No. 61.
The four are virtually free of controversy.
There is an additional candidate in the race for Office No. 61: former admiralty lawyer B. Otis Felder, who has mounted no appreciable campaign.
The Los Angeles County Bar Association has awarded its highest candidate rating of “exceptionally well qualified” to Lewis, while terming Mathai “well qualified.” Felder, initially rated “not qualified,” appealed and got the evaluation boosted to “qualified.”
Deputy DA Who Lost Election in 2012 Seeks to Stage Winning Effort
Deputy District Attorney Shannon Knight, in running for a Superior Court judgeship two years ago, had no professional campaign consultant.
Asked then if she needed one, she responded, with a laugh:
“We’ll find out.”
Knight added that she had “friends who have gone through this process before”—former deputy district attorneys who had won election to the bench—with whom she is conferring “on a regular basis.”
She lost the election.
This time around, she has a prominent consultant, David Gould, That, coupled with the vote-attracting ballot designation of “Gang Homicide Prosecutor,” appears to lend her a significant edge over her rival, Debra Losnick, whose title on the ballot is “Superior Court Commissioner” and who has no consultant.
Knight’s campaign expenditures have been slightly higher than Losnick’s. From the start of the year through May 17, the Knight campaign has spent $117,017.83 to $92,791.49 paid out by Losnick’s committee.
Both candidates are rated “well qualified” by the County Bar.
Loses Times Endorsement
In 2012, the Los Angeles Times endorsed Knight’s rival, then-Deputy District Attorney Andrea Thompson, but said of Knight, who was 38:
“She is ready to be a judge right now, and we would not hesitate to endorse her if her opponent was also not of such high caliber,” adding:
“[V]oters would be fortunate to see Knight on the bench...either through a gubernatorial appointment or in a vote two years from now.”
This year, the Times is endorsing Losnick. Recalling its earlier words about Knight, it says:
“And here we are, two years later, and it’s just bad luck—for voters as well as for Knight—that she is again matched against an opponent who is a better choice.”
Knight and Daisy, a 10-year-old cross-eyed pit bull mix.
Deputy District Attorney David Berger protests, on the Dragnetblog.com website, that in light of what the newspaper said two years ago, “rightly, Knight should be top of the Times’ list of judicial endorsements.” He charges that the Times endorsed Losnick and two other commissioners “for no apparent reason other than” the newspaper’s “existing ties to the Bench,” commenting:
“If Knight feels betrayed by the Times, she is fully entitled to that view. Her career as a prosecutor has been as exemplary as her experience is stellar and the Times should have delivered on their word.”
Knight tells the MetNews that she doesn’t feel “betrayed,” but declares:
“I was disappointed with their decision. I had hoped, in light of their comments in 2012 and the fact that I now have two additional years of experience handling extremely serious cases, that the Times would endorse me.
“I thought their statement that Losnick ‘is an asset that voters should be unwilling to sacrifice’ was potentially confusing and/or misleading in that it might cause voters to believe Commissioner Losnick would lose her position in dependency court if she were not elected. The Times states, ‘Both Shannon L. Knight and Losnick should be on the bench, serving the people of Los Angeles County,’ yet they fail to point out that if I were elected, we both would be on the bench, serving the people of Los Angeles County.
“Most of all, I was troubled by the Times’ apparent desire to ‘enhance the diversity of the bench with non-prosecutors.’ I think the reason so many prosecutors make good judges is that we tend to have extensive courtroom and jury trial experience that enables us to function proficiently as judges right away in virtually any court.
“At the end of the day, we are all entitled to our opinions. I am still confident in my ability to serve as a Superior Court Judge and I hope the voters give me the opportunity to do so.”
Knight does have the endorsement of 56 Los Angeles Superior Court judges, as well as District Attorney Jackie Lacey and former District Attorney Steve Cooley.
As to why she has not been able to secure an appointment to the bench from Gov. Jerry Brown, Knight says:
“I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems as if he’s not been appointing near as many prosecutors to the bench as governors past.”
She notes that she applied for appointment in July or August of 2011, and that her name was not sent to the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation.
Knight says she’s basically the same candidate she was two years ago, but two years older and with two death penalty cases under her belt.
She remains in the elite Hardcore Gang Unit, where she has been for seven years.
Knight secured her law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1998 and was admitted to the State Bar that year. She went to work for a non-profit, no-kill animal rescue organization before being hired two years later as a deputy district attorney.
Since becoming a prosecutor, Knight has continued to volunteer time at dog rescue facilities.
Of the abandoned dogs she has taken into her home, she says she has “just two now,” pit bull mixes, which she calls her “pride and joy.” The candidate is unmarried.
Knight appeared not long ago before retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Burt Pines, who periodically sits on assignment. He reflects:
“I was impressed by her. I thought she was solid, smart, reasonable, and well prepared. She displayed an excellent temperament and appeared to be even-handed. I would expect her to be fair to all sides if she were a judge.”
Candidate Ties Hopes to Replay of 2004 Sweep for Commissioners
Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Debra Losnick appears to be in the very position her rival, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Shannon Knight, was two years ago in seeking election to a judgeship.
Losnick has no professional campaign consultant. She says she hopes the outcome will show that she didn’t need one, adding:
The commissioner notes:
“I have a lot of judicial colleagues that have been through this before that are helping me.”
That’s remarkably similar to what Knight said in 2012.
Despite her lack of a professional consultant, as well as the recent history of prosecutors prevailing over commissioners, Losnick rejects the notion that she’s an underdog in the race.
“This is the second election that I’m aware of where there are three commissioners running at the same time,” she says, contending that “there’s some strength in numbers.”
In 2004, three Los Angeles Superior Court commissioners were elected to judgeships, in November run-offs, over deputy DAs. The commissioners were Zeke Zeidler (who defeated Deputy District Attorney David Lopez), Donna Groman (who beat then-Deputy District Attorney Judy Meyer, now a judge, through election two years later), and Mildred Escobedo (who triumphed over Deputy District Attorney Patrick David Campbell).
This year, two of Losnick’s fellow commissioners, Jacqueline Lewis and Emma Castro, are also running. As in 2004, each commissioner is pitted against a deputy DA.
Losnick contends there will be an even greater synergistic effect this year because two persons who have served recently as Los Angeles Superior Court referees—Pamala Matsumoto and Arnold Mednick—are candidates, as is an as-needed referee, Steven Klaif.
“The five of us are working together,” she says (apparently excluding Klaif). “We have quite a lot of support within the Democratic Party.”
The three commissioners each bagged the county Democratic endorsement, as did Matsumoto.
Losnick also has the endorsement of 11 local Democratic clubs.
Of more relevance to some is that she’s endorsed by 68 Los Angeles Superior Court judges and 35 commissioners, according to information on her campaign website.
“I absolutely love my job,” Losnick says, expressing the view that she “makes a difference” in Dependency Court.
Losnick, whose law degree is from Southwestern, has sat as a judicial officer, starting as a part-time referee, for a total of 23 years. In 1996, she was elected by the judges of the Superior Court as a commissioner. Each year, she says, she receives a questionnaire asking where she desires to sit, and each year she puts down “Dependency” as choices 1, 2, and 3, followed by a “smiley face.”
Knight points out that if she is elected, voters will have her services as a judge and will still have Losnick’s services as a commissioner. That’s true, Losnick says, but argues that her influence as a commissioner is restricted.
Losnick with, from left, Bruno and Xena.
“I’d like some day to be in a policy-making role, which requires being a judge,” she explains.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Nash, who has opted not to run for reelection, has been presiding judge of the Juvenile Court for 16 years, Losnick notes, indicating that she would like, eventually, to fill that role.
The commissioner says she had almost completed an application for appointment to a judgeship when she had a conversation with Nash, and was persuaded to run for election. She recounts:
“We were trying to consider how many Juvenile Court commissioners had been appointed, and we came up with one.”
That lone appointee, she says, was Martha Bellinger. She was appointed in 2009, and retired in 2011.
Supported by Nash
Nash has endorsed Losnick, and says of her:
“She’s an excellent bench officer, smart as a whip. She has great enthusiasm for her work.”
Ernestine Fields, a leading practitioner in dependency cases, hails Losnick as an outstanding” judicial officers who knows the dependency law “inside and out.” She credits Losnick with being “very well organized,” adding that “she treats everyone with respect, attorneys, adults and children, there is every reason to believe that she will do an outstanding job on the bench wherever she is assigned.”
Assessing her own performance on the bench, Losnick says:
“I don’t yell. I don’t scream. I start my day with a smile. I end my day with a smile. It’s just my way.
“We move quickly. I’m efficient. I get my calendar done. I don’t like people sitting in the hall.
“I tell my attorneys: ‘We’re not here for your convenience. We’re here for the people of the County of Los Angeles….Look at your files the night before. Make your settlement offers. Let’s go.’ And they do.”
Losnick, 54, pointed out at a recent candidate forum that the she has “never called in sick once in 23 years.”
She is married to a court commissioner, but they are in the midst of a dissolution of marriage. There are two children and there are, she says, “two kids that I’ve taken in to live with me because they didn’t have homes to be in.” All four are now in college.
“I have two dogs, four cats,” Losnick notes. The dogs are a black Labrador and a pit bull mix, she says, remarking that the latter closely resembles one of Knight’s dogs, pictured on her campaign webpage.
She says of Knight:
All I’ve heard about her is that she’s very bright and very nice, and I’m sure she is.”
B. OTIS FELDER
‘Los Angeles Prosecutor’ Campaigns With No Funds or Endorsements
Brian Otis Felder, 46, is a former admiralty lawyer. He says on his LinkedIn page:
“Having practiced law for over 20 years, including as a Los Angeles Prosecutor protecting victims, a Court-appointed Special Master protecting privileges, and a Commissioner with the State Bar protecting the public, I will serve the public as a Judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court by making sure all are treated with equal justice under law.”
Felder spent a year as an extern in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office “Volunteer Attorney Training Program.” In light of having participated in that program, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin spurned a challenge to Felder’s ballot designation as “Los Angeles Prosecutor.”
He claims to have served as a special master, appointed by the Los Angeles Superior Court, but provides no details.
The commission on which he served, “protecting the public,” was the State Bar Admiralty & Maritime Law Advisory Commission.’
The candidate is exempt from making campaign financial disclosures by virtue of having filed a form declaring he will not spend more than $1,000. His campaign website lists no endorsements.
A photo of Felder and his husband appears on his campaign website.
The Stonewall Democratic Club, of which Felder is a member, declined his bid for an endorsement, giving its backing to Commissioner Jacqueline Lewis.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Zeke Zeidler, Mitchell Beckloff, and Donna Groman, as well as Commissioner Matthew St. George and West Hollywood City Councilman Jeffrey Prang, who are openly homosexual, have endorsed Lewis.
Felder received his law degree from the University of San Francisco. He was admitted to practice on Sept. 5, 1995.
Commissioner Seen as ‘Superstar’ in Dependency, Goes ‘the Extra Mile’
Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash is effusive in his praise of Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Jacqueline Lewis, proclaiming her to be the “best judicial officer that has ever sat here.”
“Here” is the Dependency Court, where she long sat before recently moving to Traffic Court. Lewis is, Nash declares, a “legal scholar when it comes to [dependency],” a “superstar” in the field. “She has a national reputation” in the field, he notes.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Randolph Hammock says of Lewis:
“She was the heart and soul of the Dependency Court. She was the driving force, intellectually. She’s trained almost all of the judges there.”
In Lewis’s “Subordinate Judicial Officer Performance Review,” signed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Margaret Henry on March 28, 2011, it is observed:
“She is a superstar in dependency and this was acknowledged last year when she was honored as Juvenile Judge of the Year for 2010 by [California Judges Association]’s Juvenile Judges section.”
Henry’s evaluation last year says:
“Comm. Lewis is still a superstar. She is working on training [Department of Children and Family Services] social workers on domestic violence, among her myriad of other projects and trainings in our courthouse, in the state, and nationally. She is always willing to take on more, and everything she does is done well.”
Ernestine Fields—who heads a program assuring that every child who comes to Dependency Court gets a teddy bear—has known Lewis for more than 20 years. She comments:
“Jacqueline will be an outstanding judge in any area of the law wherein she is assigned. She is conscientious, hard-working and diligent. Jacqueline cares deeply about the clients who appear in her courtroom. Jacqueline will “go the extra mile” to be an outstanding judge and will cherish the opportunity to serve the public.”
The Los Angeles Times is not only endorsing Lewis, but proclaims:
“Of all the candidates running for Superior Court judge each year, one sometimes stands out as the hands-down best of the class. This year that candidate is Lewis….”
She is also endorsed by 59 Los Angeles Superior Court judges and 11 commissioners, in addition to the county Democratic Party and nine local Democratic clubs.
Lewis, who has a law degree from Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, was hired by the Superior Court as a referee in 1977 and has been a commissioner for the past six years.
In 2004, Lewis compiled the Dependency Case Law Index, containing a synopsis of appellate court decisions dealing with dependency law, which she regularly updates. She says she distributes it to about 120 persons—primarily trial court bench officers—statewide.
Lewis is the principal author of the Los Angeles County Dependency Court Domestic Violence Guidelines, upon which the Administrative Office of the Courts’s 2011 guidelines are based.
The commissioner, who is 49, is married to Richard Lewis, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant. They have two children, a daughter in high school and a son who will enter college in the fall.
Deputy District Attorney Is Known for Calmness, Effectiveness in Court
Deputy Los Angeles District Attorney Dayan Mathai, in his 15 years as a prosecutor, has handled about 120 jury trials, including 35 where the charge was murder.
His success rate is said to be high.
He recently had quite a different experience: he handled, and lost, a civil case. Mathai personally drafted a writ petition challenging the ballot designation of B. Otis Felder as “Los Angeles Prosecutor.” He argued the matter for about 50 minutes before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin.
Calmly, confidently, Mathai set forth his position—utilizing some of the very arguments that prevailed in ballot designation challenges heard in other courtrooms. Lavin would not budge from his tentative ruling that Felder had been prosecuting cases as a Los Angeles City Attorneys Office extern, and was therefore entitled to the ballot title.
He rejected the contention that it would run afoul of Elections Code proscription on designations that would tend to “mislead” voters.
Mathai says that “a lot of people” he’s talked to were “shocked” by Lavin’s ruling.
He comments, however:
“He let me be heard, and I appreciate it.”
His own ballot designation is “Gang Homicide Prosecutor,” one that has, in the past, propelled to victory the candidate to below whose name the words appeared. Lewis is identified as “Superior Court Commissioner.”
In light of Lavin’s ruling, the prospect looms that despite high spending on Mathai’s part—$215,453.14 as of May 17—vote might put Felder in a run-off with Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Jacqueline Lewis, rather than Mathai.
That’s how political consultant Fred Huebscher, for one, sees it.
“Lewis is definitely in the run-off,” he declares, saying that her gender and the fact that she’s a commissioner will assure her of that.
With Mathai and Felder both appearing to be prosecutors, Huebscher suggests that voters who favor prosecutors might gravitate to Felder. He says this is because, for Mathai, his “name is a real problem.”
Voters tend to shy away from foreign-sounding names. He says that with “Dayan Mathai,” there is an uncertainty: “People don’t know if it’s a man or a woman.”
He faults the candidate for not seeking a writ in the Court of Appeal following Lavin’s ruling. Acknowledging that writs are seldom granted, he says it was worth Mathai making the effort because if he had prevailed, Mathai would have been assured of getting in a run-off with Lewis.
Apparently sharing Huebscher’s confidence that she will be in a run-off, Lewis has spent, through May 17, only $1,574.14, though she has raised $16,441 this year.
Much of his campaign money is coming from the Indian community, Mathai notes. His parents emigrated from India more than 50 years ago, he relates.
Mathai is endorsed by 44 Los Angeles Superior Court judges, along with District Attorney Jackie Lacey and former District Attorneys Steve Cooley and Robert H. Philibosian.
Former Assistant District Attorney Patrick Dixon, now in private practice, says:
“Dayan Mathai is exceptionally well qualified, in my opinion. He worked for me for two years. Mathai is a very good trial lawyer and has an outstanding work ethic.
“He has tried dozens of homicide cases. He has common sense and good judgment.
“On top of that, he is a truly wonderful person.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge-elect Christopher Frisco terms Mathai “a gentleman, a class act,” adding:
“He’s a well-spoken intellectual. He’d be a great addition to the bench.”
Mathai, 54, has a law degree from Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University in the District of Columbia. He is single.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company