Tuesday, March 29, 2016
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 11
Three Prosecutors, One Civil Practitioner, Fight Over Judgeship
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys Debra R. Archuleta, Paul Kim, and Steven Schreiner are in this open-seat contest, along with civil practitioner Jonathan A. Malek. Archuleta’s ballot designation of “Violent Crimes Prosecutor” is being challenged in a writ proceeding by Schreiner on the ground that she’s in the White Collar Crimes Division which does not deal with violent offenses. Schreiner’s description as a “Gang Murder Prosecutor” is being contested by Kim, who has the identical designation. Kim asserts that Schreiner’s murder prosecutions don’t relate to gangs, per se, arguing that his having handled cases where a defendant or victim just happened to belong to a gang does not justify the label he’s chosen. Schreiner scoffs that Kim hasn’t handled a murder case since 2014, but says it’s too late for him to challenge his designation.
Schreiner is represented by political consultant David Gould, who has supplanted Cerrell Associates, Inc.—whose founder, Joe Cerrell, died in 2010—as the campaign conductor with the highest success rate in judicial campaigns. Archuleta has hired Jim Freeman, who has handled a few judicial campaigns, without success. Kim says he presently has no campaign consultant but intends to hire Fred Huebscher if he gets in a run-off. Malek has no consultant and acknowledges his campaign is “underfunded.”
As Huebscher sees it, Malek’s presence in the contest “insures that there will be a run-off” and “probably increases” Archuleta’s prospects of being in that run-off “since she’s the only woman running in that race.” Today, a look at Archuleta; next, the others.
Viewed as Overbearing, She Claims Entitlement to Top LACBA Rating
Deputy District Attorney Debra R. Archuleta says she would be “shocked” if she did not receive the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s highest rating for judicial candidates of “exceptionally well qualified.”
A colleague of hers remarks:
“She’s likely to be shocked.”
The ratings are “not qualified,” “qualified,” “well qualified,” and “exceptionally well qualified.”
A judge predicts that “she’ll struggle to get a ‘qualified.’ ”
The colleague terms her “very bombastic” and says:
“There is a sense of desperation about the woman.”
Another deputy district attorney describes her as “very loud, very abrasive.”
Similar reactions to her are expressed by others, including a deputy district attorney who tells of making an effort, upon seeing her approaching, to avoid her. Adjectives applied to her include “overbearing.”
“If I were a man,” Archuleta protests, “those comments would not be used.”
Does she regard it as sexist to describe her as “overbearing”? Sidestepping the question, she responds:
“I’ll say this: if I was overbearing, as may have been suggested by some, I would not have the tremendous support of the defense bar that I currently enjoy.”
Four criminal defense attorneys are listed on her website as endorsers. Archuleta says she has not included deputy public defenders—although some have given her money, she notes—because that could “create some appearance of impropriety for them.”
How would it do so?
“Well, you just never know,” she says. “You just never know.”
The candidate adds:
“I don’t even have that many deputy district attorneys on my website.”
(There are 15 identified as endorsers.)
She does have a list of endorsers that includes District Attorney Jackie Lacey, former District Attorneys Steve Cooley, Robert H. Philibosian, and Ira Reiner, along with 51 members of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and various public officials from both major political parties.
Archuleta, a Democrat, says she is able to draw support from Republicans because fitness for a judgeship has nothing to do with partisan politics.
“It has to do with my honesty, my candor, my integrity, and my fairness,” she declares.
“And I think sometimes people mistake honesty and candor and directness with being aggressive or overbearing.”
One judge says Archuleta is “really aggressive,” but applauds that trait, in the context of her court performance, adding:
“She’s quick. She’s efficient.”
The candidate does not deny that there are persons within her office with whom she does not get along. She expresses a lack of concern over that, declaring:
“I have not worked in the office to be popular or well-liked.”
“I have fans in my office. I would say that there are detractors in my office.
“But unfortunately, the District Attorney’s Office has that reputation.
“I’m more popular with the defense attorneys and the public defenders than I am in my own office.”
She explains that “part of the reason” for that is that she is a nonconformist, proclaiming:
“There were times where I felt that I needed to take a stand and I didn’t march lockstep maybe with what the District Attorney’s Office or the policy was of the office. I didn’t just blindly follow every policy because I felt that there was appropriate need to mete out justice in individual cases.”
“I recently declined to file a case on a Latina female suspect who I felt was the subject of a racist prosecution.”
The woman was suspected of selling stolen merchandise. As Archuleta tells it:
“I felt that the suspect was probably an undocumented individual who was working selling merchandise at swap meets—legitimate merchandise at swap meets. She was paying taxes, owned her own home, she was raising two daughters on her own, not taking any form of public assistance, and I thought that based on the state of the evidence and what was presented to me, that I would not take that case to a jury in downtown Los Angeles and be successful.”
She says her decision was afterward drawn into question within her office—specifying that it was not by Lacey. “I am currently assigned to the White Collar Crimes Division,” she notes, but declines to name her supervisor, explaining: “I’m not looking to create any more problems for myself.” A public information officer identifies the supervisor as Karol Carleton.
Archuleta makes clear she is not intimidated by higher-ups. She proclaims:
“I’ve never kissed anyone’s rear end to get ahead.”
Supervisor Takes Exception
Carleton says she is “shocked and disappointed” by Archuleta’s account of the stolen property case, setting forth, in a written response:
“I do recall the case that is mentioned, however it was concluded a year ago and there was never any discussion about the suspects’ race or whether or not they were ‘undocumented.’ It was not prosecuted because of insufficiency of the evidence, which I agreed and signed off on, as I do all dispositions in the division. There has never been any subsequent mention of that case to me by anyone.”
She says the “most incriminating evidence was the seizure of over 130,000 items of suspected stolen merchandise from the suspects’ warehouse,” but recounts that “it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it was stolen” or if it was, that the suspect alluded to by Archuleta “knew that it was stolen.”
Carleton goes on to say:
“I have been in the office for 27 years, 16 of which have been in a management capacity. I have spent many years prosecuting major fraud cases. I am proud of the work done by the deputies in this division. Any implication by anyone that White Collar Crime deputies, myself or the prosecutions of this division are in any way racially motivated is insulting, outrageous and untrue.”
Despite her earlier statement that her decision not to prosecute was questioned by her office, Archuleta says in an email yesterday that “was a disagreement with law enforcement and no[t] with my office as I recall.”
The judge who says that Archuleta would have trouble landing a “qualified” rating questions her campaign ethics, pointing out:
“You look at her website. The first thing that comes up, in big, big letters: ‘Exceptionally Well Qualified.’ That upsets me.”
The judge charges that she’s “parroting the term” used by the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee and thus “implies” that she’s received the group’s highest rating.
Archuleta denies there is any such implication, insisting that most visitors to the website will not be aware that those words constitute a County Bar rating, and reasoning that “those in the know” will realize “that the L.A. County Bar has not made their determinations yet.”
Notwithstanding that LACBA has not yet spoken, she continues:
“I frankly am exceptionally well qualified to be a judge.”
She boasts that she has had a “very impressive career,” noting that she’s “worked very hard.”
Expanding on her statement that she would be “shocked” if LACBA did not rate her “EWQ,” she says:
“I’ve lost two trials in the last 22 years. There might be smarter lawyers out there but they won’t outwork me.”
Yet, some in her office assert that she has devoted little time to her prosecutorial duties over the past year, diverting her attention to her campaign.
Another judge notes that at the outset of the campaign, Archuleta retained the services of a lawyer, Fredric Woocher of Strumwasser & Woocher, apparently anticipating that an opponent would seek a writ to force the Registrar-Recorder’s Office to disallow her chosen description of a “Violent Crimes Prosecutor,” given her present assignment to the White Collar Crimes Division.
Such a challenge has come, in a writ proceeding instituted by a rival candidate, Deputy District Attorney Steven Schreiner.
While Carleton does not comment directly on the legitimacy of Archuleta’s designation, she does include in her written statement a description of her division’s work, noting that it “has 21 DDAs who prosecute Elder Abuse, Real Estate Fraud and other fraud cases where the loss is greater than $300,000….”
Archuleta says that Woocher has assured her the designation will withstand scrutiny. The only case she has tried in the past year involved a violent crime, she relates, in a Feb. 24 interview, noting that it is one she was handling before going into her present unit, and brought with her.
Under Elections Code §13107(3), a non-incumbent candidate for a judicial office may use as a ballot designation, appearing under his or her name, “[n]o more than three words designating either the current principal professions, vocations, or occupations of the candidate, or the principal professions, vocations, or occupations of the candidate during the calendar year immediately preceding the filing of nomination documents.”
In the course of email exchanges last week, Archuleta admits that the case, People v. Muangthong, was “tried in December 2014”—that is, not in the calendar year preceding her 2016 filing of nomination papers.
The case involves a wife-beating charge against a real estate agent. The offense was allegedly committed on Nov. 12, 2013 (two months after the wife filed for divorce).
“The vote was 11-1 for guilty. Only one vote for not guilty after 4 hours of deliberation. That is why the case is pending retrial.”
Colleagues of hers suggest that the case would have come to a conclusion by now—by plea bargain or retrial—if she were not seeking to drag it out in order to be able to represent that she is presently handling a matter involving a violent crime.
Disclosure of Evaluations
The deputy district attorneys who are candidates for judgeships this year were each asked by this newspaper to provide their three most recent annual office “performance evaluations.” At the Feb. 24 interview with her at the MetNews office, Archuleta produced an envelope which she said contained her evaluations.
Later examined, it was seen that the evaluations were for the 2007-2008 fiscal year and the 2008-2009 fiscal year, as well as a 2009 “work plan,” setting forth duties and standards.
(In the evaluation for 2007-2008, she was found, overall, to have “met expectations”—akin to a letter grade of “C”— and for 2008-2009, she was said to have “far exceeded expectations,” tantamount to an “A.”)
The MetNews requested by email that she authorize her office to furnish the most recent evaluations. She responded:
“I went to LADA Personnel the morning of our interview. I met with Ms. Hattie Mays. She copied several of my Personnel Evaluations contained in my file. I provided you with the last 3 that she provided to me.
“I hope these suffice. If you need anything additional please advise.”
Efforts continued to obtain the latest evaluations, which were finally provided by her office last Thursday, in response to a Public Records Act request that was pressed following token initial compliance. Archuleta had waived the personnel files privilege.
Ironically, the July 1, 2011-June 30, 2012 report, which earlier had been held back, contains high praise of Archuleta by her then-supervisor, Lee Mitchell, at the Pasadena Branch. It says:
“I have no doubt that Ms. Archuleta is one of the finest deputies in this office and is one of the finest deputies I have had the privilege to work with during my career. She prepares each and every matter thoroughly and then squeezes the evidence for ever ounce its worth. Her dedication is above reproach and she’s earned it all the hard way—through her long tedious work, extreme analysis of witnesses and the evidence and her uncanny ability to understand her opponents, the judge and human nature in general. She then crafts the most persuasive approach towards gaining her objective. Her legal spirit is indefeatable and she maintains a poised professional approach under all circumstances.”
There was apparently no evaluation for 2012-13; instead, she received a report recommending that her probationary status as a grade 4 deputy be made permanent.
Her evaluations by Carleton for July 7, 2013-July 6, 2014 and for July 7, 2014-July 6, 2015 state her overall rating as “Met Expectations (Competent),” with the same “C” rating appearing in both reports under each of the nine individual categories.
Archuleta says that Mitchell “greatly respected my work as a prosecutor” and that she does not “enjoy the same [kind] of working relationship with my current head deputy as I did with Mr. Mitchell.” She also notes:
“I believe the policy surrounding the way Performance Evaluations are prepared by the DA’s Office has changed in the past few years.”
Archuleta, 58, claims to have had a “unique life experience.” She recounts.
“When I was 19, I was the victim of domestic violence. I never thought of myself as a victim, but I wound up having brain surgery when I was 21 years old because I had a blood clot on the brain.”
The person who abused her, she says, was a “high school boyfriend.”
“I was married previously and my husband was an alcoholic. I tried my best and I couldn’t make it work.”
She has been married to her present husband, a music teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, for 20 years; they reside in La Canada Flintridge, and have two children. The prosecutor sometimes uses her married name of Debra Archuleta Stolmack.
Although she has never handled a civil case as an attorney, Archuleta says she has familiarity with civil practice having worked as a legal secretary and paralegal “for about eight years” while in college—U.C. Irvine—and while a student at Western State University College of Law, an unaccredited institution in Fullerton.
She started working in the District Attorney’s Office in 1989 as a law clerk. After graduating from law school in 1990 and gaining admittance to the State Bar on June 5, 1991, Archuleta became a deputy district attorney.
(On her website, she says, “I began my legal career in 1990,” which pre-dates her bar membership.)
So far, Archuleta recites, she has raised about $275,000 for her campaign, $50,000 of which is her own money. She says she will spend “as much as it takes,” declaring:
“Like Donald Trump would say, ‘I’m in it to win it.’ ”
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company