Friday, April 28, 2017
LETTERS TO A SENATOR
SB 235—Judicial Elections Reform Bill—Seen as Worthwhile
(The following letters have been sent to state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, in support of his judicial elections reform bill, SB 235. The bill is the subject of a news story. Some of the letters have been pared.)
On behalf of the Alliance of California Judges, which represents more than 500 judges from every area of California, I write in support of Senate Bill 235.
There is no place for gamesmanship in how candidates identify themselves in judicial races. SB 235 addresses several common ballot designation abuses with common sense solutions—limiting unnecessary litigation and ensuring that voters are not misled by crafty characterizations of a candidate’s qualifications.
Voters should choose a judge based on qualifications, not catch phrases. SB 235 is an important step toward this goal.
President, Alliance of California Judges
(The writer is a judge of the Sacramento Superior Court)
I write In wholehearted support of SB 235. As a former President of the Los Angeles County Bar Association in practice of law for 54 years, I have been very concerned with the deceptive ballot designations which widely corrupt judicial ballots and judicial candidates. “Truth in Judicial Labeling” is long overdue in reforming judicial elections. Presently, judicial candidates are seduced into writing misleading descriptions of their work in order to match their opponents who post “sexy descriptions” of their work in order to make themselves look more impressive to the electorate The practice is out of control.
Thank you for this responsible legislation.
HARRY L. HATHAWAY
I would like to express my personal SUPPORT for SB 235.
The changes you propose are sensible and helpful to voters to obtain clear and accurate descriptions about a judicial candidate’s profession, vocation or occupation. The changes are an important step towards maintaining a level playing field in judicial elections and give voters meaningful reform. As the former chair of the California Judges Association’s Elections Committee, I am aware of the increasing impact on the administration of justice because of the litigation associated with challenges—appropriately filed—to curb the abuses that you are familiar with. Your proposal addresses this mischief.
Thank you for the opportunity to offer my personal support.
PAUL A. BACIGALUPO
(Bacigalupo is a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court.)
I want to thank you for introducing SB 235 to amend Elections Code §13107. Although I moved away from Los Angeles County after my retirement from the bench, I have watched with the greatest dismay the titles used by candidates for the Los Angeles Superior Court to describe the work in which they are supposedly currently engaged. In my opinion, your bill will have an immense impact on eliminating the disingenuous titles currently being used in an attempt to persuade voters. It is a sad fact that too many voters have no understanding of the judicial system in the first place and that can start with their election. I have seen voters reject highly competent incumbent judges simply based on the ethnic origin of judges’ names or their gender. That is bad enough, but the current practice of choosing dramatic sounding job titles is simply beyond the pale. It has allowed some totally incompetent people to be elected. The most extreme example being the woman [nonpracticing attorney Lynn Olson, a proprietor of Manhattan Bread and Bagel] from whom I purchased bagels for my staff every morning on my way to court from Manhattan Beach. Her election to the bench was and remains simply appalling.
Thus, your bill will have a long-lasting and positive impact on stopping what has become a culture of persuasion of voters that has no place in elections that require the most honorable people to be elected to the bench.
I applaud your efforts in attempting to overhaul the judicial elections system with SB 235.
ELIZABETH A. BARON
(The writer is a retired justice of the Court of Appeal.)
The Conference of California Bar Associations (CCBA), a statewide organization of attorneys representing more than 30 metropolitan, regional and specialty bar associations, strongly supports your SB 235 and is proud to be the sponsor of the bill. The CCBA is comprised of volunteer attorneys from all areas of legal practice who are dedicated to serving justice in California through the development of creative, non-partisan solutions to law-related issues.
SB 235 will establish statutory standards for accuracy and honesty in ballot designations for candidates for judicial office, to help insure that voters can make decisions in these races based on facts, not misleading marketing.
Current law permits candidates for judicial office to use basically any three words as a ballot title to make themselves as appealing as possible to the electorate, often at the expense of truth and clarity. As a result, judicial ballots are replete with lofty and tough-on-crime-sounding ballot titles such as “violent crimes prosecutor,” “gang murder prosecutor,” “terrorist prosecutor,” and the like—even in cases where the candidate has never prosecuted a violent crime, gang murder, or terrorist. The law specifies that the ballot title cannot be misleading, but enforcement requires a competitor to sue and a court proceeding that wastes both time and scarce judicial resources, and which may not be finalized until after the election is over.
SB 235 will address this growing problem by requiring employees of governmental law offices to use only their official titles—such as “deputy district attorney” or “deputy public defender”—for ballot designations. It also would require lawyer candidates for judicial office not employed by governmental offices to devote a certain minimum percentage of their professional time to the practice of law before they can designate themselves as “attorney” on the ballot.
This change is critical in judicial elections for a variety of reasons: The elections are nonpartisan; the candidates are among the least known on the ballot because of the (generally) nonpolitical nature of the office; and incumbent judges rarely fundraise or actively campaign, many believing it is inappropriate in light of the nature of their office and inconsistent with the canons of judicial ethics.
AB 235 will not prevent candidates for judicial office from informing the electorate of their qualifications for office. It will simply prevent them from doing so through exaggerated and misleading ballot titles.
Legislative Representative, CCBA
I have become aware of Senate Bill 235, and the editorials in the Metropolitan News and Los Angeles Times. In that regard, I wholeheartedly endorse such measure and hope that you are successful in obtaining its passage.
I have been in practice (full time) as an attorney for more than 50 years and have been dismayed to see the degeneration of the judicial election process in Los Angeles County. The “bagel lady” situation a few years back, where an esteemed judge [Dzintra Janavs] who unfortunately had a very foreign sounding name was defeated was the outstanding example.
Being at the bottom of the ballot and with the public having little knowledge of the candidates is bad enough. Although there are often well qualified candidates, the fact that exaggeration and exploitation of the theory that prosecutors who have been involved with bad people are somehow more qualified to be judges unfortunately draws some incompetents, unqualified and even unethical candidates— and the public sometimes seems to use the misleading terms to determine who to vote for—rather than doing a little research.
The local bar associations, some newspapers and individual attorneys such as myself attempt to “spread the word” at election time as to qualified candidates for judicial officers. Sometimes our assistance helps, but there are regular exceptions—which generally leaves a problem judge in place for a minimum of six years, and probably a better than 50/50 chance of regular re-election.
Over the years, I have handled virtually all types of trials, civil and criminal, juries, non-jury, appeals in all of the courts of California. I have seen and experienced, as well discussed with presiding judges the problem of dealing with “turkeys.” Some incompetents are assigned by presiding judges to small claims and traffic court—which pleases lawyers because we don’t have to deal with the problem. But other presiding judges recognize that small claims and traffic are areas where the “good people” have dealings with the court, which sends them back to courts where attorneys with more serious cases (from our standpoint—as small claims and traffic are certainly important to the individuals involved).
Please excuse the length of these comments, but seeing the editorials hit a chord.
ROBERT L. KERN
My wife (Stephanie Scher) and I strongly support the subject legislation and express our appreciation to you for addressing this serious issue, which is long overdue. Too many judicial elections have been subverted by the current practices which must be changed to protect qualified judges and to assure more objectivity in the election process. We also concur with and support the April 13,2017, Los Angeles Times editorial—Truth in Judicial Labeling, which addresses much of what follows, and endorses Senate Bill 235.
Between us we have over seventy years of legal experience. I was an appointed in house city attorney, a former city prosecutor, and an administrative law judge. Ms. Scher was in private practice serving as a contract city attorney for numerous jurisdictions. We both appeared on a regular basis in courts at the trial and appellate level, handling cases including land use and environmental issues, First Amendment issues, employee relations, due process, contract disputes, personal injury and property damages, etc. The importance of qualified judges is crucial and is not promoted by the current ballot designation practice. In fact, in many cases that practice is a sham. We have been concerned about this for over a decade and during that time have, in some cases, checked the election outcome in relation to the Los Angeles County Bar evaluation of candidates. For example, information concerning the 2014 Los Angeles County Judicial Election is set forth in the following paragraph:
Seven candidates for Los Angeles Superior Court were rated “not qualified” by the Evaluation Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. Of the seven, five were prosecutors. For example,
•An attorney rated well qualified (civil litigator) lost to an attorney with a lesser rating designated as a “sex crimes prosecutor.”
•An attorney rated not qualified designated as a “major narcotics prosecutor” defeated a Superior Court Commissioner rated qualified.
•An experienced Superior Court Judge rated well qualified was defeated by a lawyer designated as a “violent crimes prosecutor” rated not qualified.
•Where two candidates were rated well qualified, a Superior Court Commissioner received 39% of the vote and lost to a candidate designated as a “gang homicide prosecutor,” who got 61%.
Throughout California the use of “designed” nomenclature is used to attain an advantage by playing to base voter bias and fears. For some reason, despite the fact that judges have significant civil law responsibilities, crime fighting designations like “child molestation prosecutor” or “gang prosecutor” resonate for public appeal regardless of their validity or the truth, or the so called prosecutor’s success rate, and regardless of the fact that the vast majority of cases heard by judges do not involve child molestation, gangs or homicide.
In 2014, some of the candidate designations were Criminal Homicide Prosecutor, Gang Murder Prosecutor, Child Molestation Prosecutor, Major Narcotics Prosecutor, and Sex Crimes Prosecutor There are serious questions as to whether any of these are actual job titles, or in any way valid depictions of the candidate. Instead, there is a strong probability that they are not totally valid and are meant to deceive or confuse the public, raising serious ethical issues that should be addressed by the California State Bar and election officials.
As most of us in the legal profession know, good judges come from all backgrounds and experience. To simplify a candidate’s prowess by rigged titles is not valid and has led to substantial abuse. As the LA Times endorses your legislation as Truth in Judicial Labeling, we concur. Our concern is that the elective process is imperfect enough for judicial selections without the aggravation of false advertising.
MICHAEL H. MILLER
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company