Wednesday, May 4, 2016
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 42
One Prosecutor, One Court Commissioner, Two Private Lawyers Are in Battle
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
This is the only race for an open seat in the county this year in which there is only one deputy district attorney running—Efrain Aceves (billing himself as “E. Matthew Aceves”). It’s also the only seat sought by a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner, Cynthia A. Zuzga (using her nickname, “Cyndy.”)
Two private practitioners are seeking the office, only one of whom—Michael P. Ribons—regularly practices in the court he seeks to serve as a judge. Immigration attorney Alicia Molina practices almost exclusively in the U.S. Immigration Court.
The race pits the influence of the Los Angeles Times, which has endorsed Zuzga, against the prowess of Aceves’s advisor, David Gould, now generally regarded as the foremost political consultant in local judicial races (in the aftermath of the death of Joe Cerrell in 2010).
Aceves appears to have an edge over Zuzga in the form of superior finances, from what can be ascertained at this point, and what is generally viewed as an advantage by virtue of his high impact ballot designation of “Child Molestation Prosecutor.” She’s identified as a “Superior Court Commissioner.”
The contest reflects the wall between the Mexican American Bar Association (“MABA”) and the Mexican American Bar Association-Political Action Committee (“MABA PAC”). The bar association supports Aceves, and the PAC is backing Molina.
Today: a look at Molina.
Attorney Has Handled Only Three Superior Court Trials, None Before a Jury
Immigration attorney Alicia Molina is running for a seat on the Los Angeles Superior Court although she has handled only three trials in that court, and no trials in any other court. Those three trials were in dissolution of marriage cases, hence, there was no jury.
She represented a client in a fourth family law matter in Los Angeles Superior Court, she says, which was resolved in pre-trial proceedings.
That she has not handled a jury trial is inconsequential, Molina asserts, explaining:
“To automatically make it seem like I’m not qualified because I don’t have jury trial experience is not fair because if you look at the prosecutors [seeking election], they only have criminal law experience, but yet the position that they’re running for, they could end up a family law attorney [sic], they could end up a landlord-tenant attorney [sic]. There’s nine different areas of law that they could end up in.
“So, I think that we need to be fair here and realize that when you’re appointed a judge, you’re going to go to Judge School and they’re going to teach you how to be a proper judge, and they’re going to train you in the different areas of law.
“So, while I may not be versed in jury trials, I am versed in trials. I’ve done over 300.”
Aside from the three divorce cases, the “trials” she has handled, it emerges, were administrative hearings in the U.S. Immigration Court—an Executive Branch entity, under the Justice Department—which deals with extraditions and deportations.
As to those hearings, she insists:
“Those are trials.”
“Just because it’s immigration doesn’t mean that it’s not a trial.”
The United States Supreme Court long ago found to the contrary. In a 1913 extradition case, it said of an immigration hearing: “The proceeding is not a trial.”
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 described such a hearing as “a circumscribed inquiry.”
At an immigration hearing, Molina insists, “they use the same evidentiary rules” as in trials, asserting:
“The only difference is they don’t have a jury trial.”
In 1983, the Ninth Circuit, citing precedent, observed that evidence is admissible in an immigration hearing that would be barred in a courtroom.
Given that Molina is an immigration attorney, the accuracy of her ballot designation of “Domestic Violence Attorney” is questioned by some, though not challenged in a writ action.
Under the Elections Code, a ballot designation of non-office-holders must reflect the person’s “principal professions, vocations, or occupations.”
“I do immigration and I do domestic violence, and for the last two years I’ve been volunteering at the Harriet Buhai Center.”
The candidate says she works at the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law two full days a month. The center’s website says she discusses “domestic violence and immigration issues” with clients there.
Molina also points out that immigration cases sometimes have domestic violence aspects to them.
Is she primarily an immigration attorney? She responds:
“Yes, with domestic violence.”
Addressing the ballot description of another candidate in the race, Deputy District Attorney Ephraim Aceves, as a “Child Molestation Prosecutor,” she remarks:
“I don’t know how much of it he does as far as child molestation.”
Alleges ‘Backroom Politics’
On her Facebook page, Molina charges in a May 1 posting:
“These last few months have been super busy and an eye opening experience on backroom politics. I have unanimously been recommended for endorsement twice and twice one of my opponents, who did not receive a single vote by the endorsement committee, was able to overturn my endorsement clearly due to backroom politics deals.”
Molina did not reply to a MetNews request for an elaboration.
It was learned, however, that the Stonewall Democratic Club—which, in addition to supporting a political party, seeks to further the causes of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons—did spurn the recommendation of its endorsements committee in favor of Molina by voting to support another candidate in the race, Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Cyndy Zuzga.
Zuzga, in response to a request for a comment, explains:
I attended the Stonewall Democratic Club meeting on April 4 regarding the club’s endorsement for LA Superior Court Seat 42. Susie Shannon, Stonewall board member, told me that I was not a “registered Democrat” and therefore would not be interviewed. I explained to her that my name does not appear in the public records as I have a confidential address due to my judicial officer status. I was successful, along with the support of at least ten Stonewall members, to have the matter taken off the consent calendar and tabled until I could prove my party status and then be interviewed. (Apparently, [Deputy Attorney General] Kim Nguyen [a candidate in another judicial race] also was not listed on the public records as a registered Democrat.)
I believe that I had a solid interview with the Stonewall interview committee on Sunday, April 24. On Monday, April 25, I received an email that the Board was recommending the endorsement of Ms. Molina.
I did not attend the April 25 meeting. Apparently, my supporters were successful in pulling the endorsement off the consent calendar and put the vote to the membership. Hans Johnson, President of the East Area Progressive Democrats, told me that I received the Stonewall endorsement….
I am unaware of other organizations that voted to disregard a board or committee recommendation and decided to endorse me, or anyone else.
“It is unfortunate that Ms. Molina chooses to allege that I partake in ‘backroom politics deals.’ This is absolutely not true and is very insulting.”
“It is a routine part of the process in Democratic clubs, including Stonewall, that any panel recommendation—happening behind closed doors—is subject to a review by club members and removed from a consent docket, reconsidered, and even reversed on the floor. That is as it should be.
“Far from deserving skepticism or misplaced allegations of underhandedness and unfairness, the informed debate—in an open meeting, before a larger, fuller room of informed participants— about the endorsement was an exercise in transparency and democracy. The resulting open and more robust debate about the candidates’ qualifications actually revealed serious questions about Ms. Molina’s suitability for the role of judge. (Some of those concerns were validated late last week by the [Los Angeles County] Bar Association’s rating her ‘not qualified’ for the post on the bench.”
Molina is backed by the Mexican American Bar Association-Political Action Committee (MABA-PAC) and three Los Angeles Superior Court judges—James Horan, Carol Najera (who is also endorsing Aceves), and Gustavo Sztraicher.
Sztraicher is indebted to the PAC, of which Molina is a long-time board member. He faced a potential challenge earlier this year, after attorney Michael P. Ribons took out election papers for his seat, and MABA-PAC committed itself to raising $200,000 to finance his campaign. Ribons opted to pursue a run for Office No. 42, instead.
On its Facebook page, MABA-PAC features a photo of its president shaking Molina’s hand, with the caption:
“MABA-PAC President Felipe Plascencia is proud to announce the candidacy of former PAC Vice President Alicia Molina for Los Angeles Superior Court Judge. We invite you to join us in building a grassroots campaign against the status quo. The PAC will be using all its resources and contacts to elect a compassionate judge who understands our community.”
Molina, who earned her law degree at Loyola, declares:
“I am the candidate who is not your typical candidate. If you look at everybody else and either they’re prosecutors or…Ms. Zuzga is a commissioner. But I think a lot of the people, a lot of the community, they want change, and that’s what I represent.
“I’m a community lawyer. I have tried to help out the community, and my basis for running is to make sure there’s justice for all. So, I’m running on a different platform, and if people agree and like what I have to offer, then they will consider me the better candidate.”
She disputes the proposition that Zuzga has superior credentials for a judgeship in light of her service as a bench officer. Molina says of judicial experience:
“Ephraim does not have it, neither does Mr. Ribons. The majority of judges when they run for office don’t have it.
“That’s why they have the process of sending whoever wins to Judge School, so that they can prepare them, and then they start them off in traffic school [sic], and work their way up.”
(A new judge must undergo five days of schooling in the area of law relating to his or her initial assignment, as well as five days of general orientation, and 10 days at the B. E. Witkin Judicial College in San Jose.)
Molina, 48, says of herself:
“Despite the fact that I work very hard, …I do not have the economic accomplishment that an attorney has, because I’ve devoted my life to social justice, and therefore, I’ve worked at non-profits and I’m not earning to my potential. But I don’t see that as a negative because I’ve chosen to help people, and I think it’s important to have people to have lawyers that will speak for the underrepresented.”
“I want to be that voice for people who are underrepresented, and need someone to be their voice.”
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company