Thursday, April 21, 2016
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 158
Five, From Varied Backgrounds, Seek Open Seat
By ROGER M. GRACE
Vying for this seat are Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorneys David Berger and Fred Mesropi, Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Onica Valle Cole, Deputy Attorney General Kim L. Nguyen, and Van Nuys sole practitioner Naser “Nas” Khoury. Berger, Cole and Khoury have been profiled. Today: Mesropi and Nguyen.
Prosecutor Is Willing to Have His Own Speech Curbed, and That of Others
While regarded as an able prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Fred Mesropi would draw low marks from First Amendment advocates in light of his belief that there could be an enforceable requirement that one judicial candidate could not criticize another, and his willingness to acquiesce in it.
Mesropi also asserts that a rival candidate is unethical for engaging in a journalistic endeavor.
“I’ve been told that judicial canons, you know, prohibit me from, during a judicial campaign, from speaking ill” of other candidates, Mesropi says, when asked what he offers the electorate that his adversaries don’t.
Had he looked at the canons, himself?
“I went through them and have been advised that, you know, it’s not proper.”
What does the canon say?
“You’re not supposed to be disparaging of an opponent.”
Does he not have First Amendment rights as a candidate? He responds:
“I do. But, as we know, First Amendment rights for judicial candidates are not the same as for others.”
Shown Canon 5, he reads aloud ¶B(2) prohibiting a judicial candidate from “knowingly, or with reckless disregard for the truth, misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position, or any other fact concerning…his or her opponent….”
Mesropi, 41, agrees that there is a difference between “misrepresenting” and “disparaging,” and proceeds to discuss the others running for Office No. 158.
Comparing himself to Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Onica Valle Cole, who only handles misdemeanors, he says:
“The gravity of the cases I’ve dealt with are such that they give you the understanding, the one-on-one understanding of the seriousness and what happens in a felony court.”
He questions whether Deputy Attorney General Kim L. Nguyen has any trial experience, noting that those in the A.G.’s Office “do appellate cases.” Mesropi suggests that an appellate lawyer might be qualified for the appellate bench but asserts that attorneys handling trials are better suited for the trial court.
(Nguyen says that only about five percent of her time is spent on appeals, those being in federal court.)
With respect to private practitioner Naser “Nas” Khoury, Mesropi says:
“I can’t say a bad word about Mr. Khoury, except the fact that our experiences differ. The perspective of an attorney is, you know, doing what is best for their client, and the fiduciary duty that comes with it.
“But the perspective of a prosecutor, as you know, we have different ethical duties, and doing your utmost to do justice is a different perspective and I think makes one more qualified for a judicial spot than an attorney with otherwise.”
Faults Berger’s Blogging
Turning his attention to Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney David Berger, he comments:
“As you know what a judge does, on the bench, is just as important as what the judge does off the bench. I don’t know Mr. Berger, personally, just what I’ve read in the blog—and he likes to write about all sorts of stuff.
“I don’t know, you know, what this compulsion comes from. Even after he’s put in for a spot, he wrote about all the different judicial candidates, even after he started campaigning. I don’t know if that compulsion is going to continue even after he’s on the bench, or not.”
What if it does?
“I think that would be up to the Judicial Council if it’s appropriate or not,” he says.
Under further questioning, he asserts that the Council is a “disciplinary body.”
(The Judicial Council makes policies for the courts, while the Commission on Judicial Performance disciplines errant judges.)
Would it be appropriate if Berger, as a judge, were to write a newspaper column? Mesropi expresses this view:
“You know what? If it’s appropriate or not, I think a judicial officer has to conduct themselves in a certain way, and that, to me, would be one of those things that seems not becoming of a bench offer.”
Asked if he would be explaining that to Art Gilbert, he says:
“I don’t know who that is.”
Arthur Gilbert is the presiding justice of Div. Six of this district’s Court of Appeal. For the past 28 years, he has been writing a column for the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
Can he name any Court of Appeal presiding justice in Los Angeles?
“Justice Moreno,” he answers.
In a follow-up e-mail that day (March 29), Mesropi writes:
“Upon walking out of your office I realized the egregious error of demoting Justice [Carlos] Moreno who is a retired California Supreme Court Justice to our appellate court. I should have said Justice Mosk, but in the heat of the moment my memory utterly failed me.”
Richard Mosk was, at the time of the interview, a member of the Court of Appeal, but was not a presiding justice. (Mosk resigned the following day as an associate justice, and died last Sunday.)
Here’s Mesropi’s statement as to why he is better qualified than the other contenders in the race, before seeing that a canon does not bar criticism:
“You know, it’s not proper to speak ill of another judicial candidate, but each lacks one thing that I do have: for example, I’ve tried serious felonies, you know, rapes, robberies, murders, the whole gamut. So, you know, while I wish I hadn’t seen the things I’ve seen trying these cases and the experiences I’ve had with these, you know, victims, families, and so forth, it gives a different perspective than not trying these serious cases, or being, you know, an appellate lawyer who reads about it after the fact.”
Berger has likewise been the prosecutor in cases involving serious felonies.
Mesropi has been a prosecutor for 16 years, and Berger for 19 years. Mesropi, in his last three annual performance evaluations, was found to have “exceeded expectations”; Berger attained that rating in one of the three most recent “PEs” and was declared to have “met expectations” in the other two.
A Los Angeles County Bar Association subcommittee has branded Berger “not qualified”—based apparently on the political content of his blogs—and found Mesropi “well qualified.” It is not known if Berger will appeal to the full committee. (It also gave a “well qualified” rating to Nguyen and a “qualified” rating to Cole. Khoury has not revealed his tentative rating.)
Missing from Mesropi’s list of endorsers is District Attorney Jackie Lacey, though Mesropi has the endorsement of former D.A. Robert H. Philibosian. Lacey, as well as her predecessor, Steve Cooley, along with Philibosian, have endorsed Berger. (Those three have also endorsed Nguyen.)
Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Karin Borzakian, who was, until last month, a colleague of Mesropi in the District Attorney’s Office, remarks:
“I know Fred Mesropi very well. He is a strong prosecutor, ethical and has a temperament perfect for the bench. I met him in the VIP [Victim Impact Program] unit in Van Nuys and he was responsible for several heavy cases and did a great job, with no complaints and showed no stress. He has the perfect disposition for a bench officer and is a worthy candidate.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Andrea C. Thompson says:
“Fred Mesropi has appeared in front of me in Van Nuys, but it has only been on a few arraignments, so I haven’t observed him enough to form an opinion. I have not heard anything negative about him, either.”
Another judge, who asks not to be identified, terms Mesropi a “great guy” who would “have excellent judicial temperament.”
Deputy Attorney General Has Handled a Variety of Matters, but Not Trials
Deputy Attorney General Kim L. Nguyen wants to preside over trials in the Los Angeles Superior Court, but has never questioned witnesses nor addressed a jury. But, a factor in her favor, she asserts, is that if she were elected, she would be the only Vietnamese American judge on that court.
She points to Jacqueline Nguyen, appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2002, and placed on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012.
“Since then,” Nguyen notes, “no Vietnamese American has been elected or appointed to the L.A. County Superior Court bench.”
Should ethnicity be a factor in electing judges? Nguyen argues:
“I don’t think ethnicity should be a factor as a reason to challenge a sitting judge, certainly not. But I do think that diversity on the bench is an important quality to keep in mind. And when we talk about diversity, I think we can mean a lot things. I think we can speak of gender diversity, ethnic diversity, as well as diversity of legal experience.
“I think we all benefit when we have a bench that is comprised of a rich mix of individuals, because judges bring different perspectives, different viewpoints, different philosophies to the bench. Certainly, I think everyone who is on the bench needs to respect the rule of law, understand their role in the judicial process. As a Superior Court judge, you’re not going to be making the same rulings that the California Supreme Court would make. So, there are boundaries, very important ones that a trial court judge has.
“That being said, I think a bench that’s comprised of different individuals, different perspectives, people from different backgrounds is an important thing and a thing to value.”
Need for Diversity
As to why diversity is significant to a court which, unlike a legislature, is not a deliberative body, she declares:
“[T]he people who come to the Superior Court come from a diverse set of backgrounds, from a diverse set of experiences. L.A. County is one of the most diverse counties in the country and the people who come to L.A. Superior Court seeking justice, seeking the opportunity to be heard, seeking the need and the desire to tell their stories and know that their stories are heard, these are all important things that litigants bring to the court and want from the court.
“And I think the flip side of that is having a bench that is comprised of different people and different perspectives and different backgrounds and different cultures allows the L.A. Superior Court to interact with these different, diverse populations in a meaningful way.
“Judges aren’t robots. We’re not all exactly the same. We don’t go into a courtroom, input the facts, press the F2 button with the applicable law, and out comes the answer. I think decision-making is far more nuanced than that, it’s a process of taking in the facts, applying the law, of using one’s discretion, of considering all different factors. And I think that diversity of background does matter.”
Nguyen, 39, was admitted to the State Bar on Dec. 4, 2000. Since then, she has been an associate for the erstwhile firm of McCutchen, Doyle, Brown, and Enersen (2000-2002), a law clerk for a Ninth Circuit judge (2002-2003), an associate at Horvitz and Levy (2003-2008), a writs attorney at the Court of Appeal (2008-2014), and now, a deputy attorney general.
Her activities include handling motions for summary judgment and writ proceedings.
The lawyer says she applied for a judgeship in 2011, but met with a chilly reception from the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation.
“They questioned whether I had enough experience,” she reports, adding:
“I didn’t get a ‘not qualified’ [rating].”
(Applicants are only told their rating if it is “not qualified,” which can be appealed.)
Her political consultant is Parke Skelton, who works for SG&A Campaigns. Her husband, Michael Shimpock, is a partner in that firm.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company