Friday, February 15, 2002
Los Angeles Superior Court Office No. 90
Glendale Attorney Wright Challenges Incumbent Simpson for Bench
C. ROBERT SIMPSON
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Friends and colleagues describe Glendale insurance defense attorney Kenneth E. Wright as charming and a workaholic.
They say the 39-year-old attorney is a quick learner, ambitious, and knows his stuff in the courtroom. But he just doesn’t have that lawyer aura about him.
“If you met him you wouldn’t say he’s a lawyer,” Irvine attorney R. Thomas Peterson says. “I guess that’s a compliment.”
Wright declined to respond to numerous attempts over the course of more than a month by the MetNews to interview him for this profile, including phone calls to both Wright and his campaign treasurer and visits to his penthouse office. He finally agreed to an interview this week, but offered no explanation for his earlier refusal.
He says he has the experience and the temperament to win a seat on the Los Angeles Superior Court and he says he is willing to make a run for it, even if it means going up against an incumbent, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge C. Robert Simpson Jr.
Wright has logged 11 years with the Glendale law firm of Cline & Associates, where he has spent a large part of his time in the courtroom dealing with complex cases ranging from advertising injury and defamation, to toxic torts and wrongful death. The firm is in-house counsel for Hartford Insurance.
He has no experience in criminal law.
“I think I have a lot to offer,” Wright says. “[Simpson] served for 13 years.”
Peterson was among several of Wright’s colleagues who say they was surprised when they heard he was entering the race.
“I never knew he had any aspirations [to be a judge],” Peterson says.
But Wright says he has been contemplating a run for the bench for the past few years. And he decided to take the plunge this year.
Wright told him there was an opportunity for a judgeship and that there was an “elderly” incumbent up for re-election, Peterson says.
“I think he felt it was time for a new person to be on the bench,” Peterson says.
Wright denies that age was a factor in choosing to run for the seat now occupied by Simpson, who is running for re-election. Simpson is 77. Wright is not yet 40.
Simpson says he has never laid eyes on Wright and can’t understand why he would want to fight for his seat.
“If I had to guess, and it would purely be a guess, I’d say he’s counting on the age factor,” Simpson says. “My surmise is he may likely be a guy who...thinks I’ll fold under pressure and throw up my hands. Well, I’ve got news for him.”
Wright says it is not personal.
“I think I can put a lot of energy into the job,” Wright offers as an explanation.
On his website, www.kenwrightforjudge.org, Wright compares himself with Simpson, saying their “backgrounds are entirely different.”
He notes that Simpson is a native of North Dakota who was born in 1925 and has spent the majority of his career not practicing law, but working for Southern California Edison and then in the Deukmejian administration until he was appointed to the bench 13 years ago.
The website says Wright was born, reared and lives in Southern California and has dedicated his life to the practice of law.
Wright is in fact a Downey native but he attended high school in the Northern California town of Orland, near Chico. He graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a degree in zoology and he received his law degree from Southwestern University School of Law.
Simpson stands firm on the assertion that he has more than enough mental and physical energy to keep his job.
“I don’t have an ache or a pain,” Simpson says.
And Simpson says he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Canoga Park attorney Thomas Cohen praised Wright’s “mellow” temperament and his ability to separate himself from his cases, but acknowledged that Wright is facing a tough road ahead by challenging an incumbent.
And Cohen says Wright’s background is a little different than the normal path to the bench, noting that a large number of judges are ex-prosecutors instead of defense litigators.
But despite his unorthodox path, Cohen says Wright’s youth would be a benefit to the court.
“Getting young blood on the bench is a good thing,” Cohen says.
Wright said that many attorneys and judges encouraged him to run for a seat on the Superior Court. His website echoes that claim and says the encouragement came as a result of his “reputation for being extremely honest, ethical, dedicated, hard-working, even-tempered and energetic.”
“It is for these and other reasons that a substantial amount of judicial and attorney colleagues have strongly encouraged me to run for the bench,” the website states.
When asked, Wright declined to name any of his supporters.
Just four attorneys and two retired judges are named in campaign financial reports as contributors to Wright’s campaign. Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Weil is listed as a contributor but Weil says he does not know Wright and his wife, Dorothy, signed the check, based on her relationship with Kalman Zempleny II, Wright’s campaign treasurer.
“I don’t know how I got involved in this,” Weil says.
Wright says he is running a “typical campaign” that includes some slate mail, but Wright says he wasn’t sure how many he was going to be on or which ones.
And he says he doesn’t have a set limit on how much he plans to spend, but that he would gladly take any checks that came across his desk.
As of the last required filing period, Wright had raised less than $3,000 compared to Simpson’s nearly $90,000.
Nearly 100 donations to Simpson’s campaign came from Superior Court judges and commissioners and attorneys compared to Wright’s four lawyers, one retired judge who says he knew nothing about his contribution, and retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Isabella H. Grant.
Wright says he has no official individual endorsements. He was rated “qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar while Simpson was deemed “well qualified” by the panel. Wright attributes his lower rating to his lack of criminal experience and he did not appeal the rating.
Wright, a Democrat, was also interviewed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party for an endorsement. The panel can only endorse registered Democrats, meaning the Republican Simpson wasn’t even considered. After meeting with Wright, the Democrats voted not to endorse him.
Several of Wright’s contributors say they do not know him personally, but gave donations on the advice of Zempleny.
Bob Tappan, owner of Arrow Mailing Services, is one of those contributors.
“Kalman is someone whose judgment I would trust implicitly,” Tappan says.
Tappan’s company is responsible for mailing the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s monthly newsletter.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Stoll says Wright appears regularly in his Glendale courtroom, but declines to comment, saying it would be unfair to Wright’s opponent.
Wright has written and prepared educational materials for legal publishing firm The Rutter Group since 1998 and his latest project for firm is co-authoring a new practice guide “Tort Litigation,” due out in 2003. Wright’s campaign treasurer is the executive director of The Rutter Group.
One of Wright’s co-authors for the guide, Daniel Kelly of the San Francisco personal injury law firm of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Echeverria, says he was pleased to hear that Wright threw his hat into the ring.
“I’ve been very impressed with Ken,” Kelly says.
But Laurel Greenspan Kaufer, a Los Angeles Superior Court mediator, says she doesn’t understand why Wright is running for judge if he doesn’t want anyone to know who he is.
“I was neither impressed nor unimpressed,” Kaufer says of Wright, adding that he was a pleasure to work with.
Attorneys who appear in Simpson’s courtroom say the judge runs a tight ship.
The no-nonsense judge likes his Norwalk courtroom to open on time and the attorneys who appear in front of him to be collegial, well-prepared and professional.
And if things get really out of hand, the judge might bang the heel of his hand on the bench to get things back in order, but even that has only happen twice—in his 13-year judicial career.
He never raises his voice because things just usually fall into place.
“I just have to believe that everyone who goes into his courtroom comes out of it liking the man,” retired Judge Robert Parkin, who currently sits on assignment in Compton, says.
Norwalk Head Deputy Public Defender Robert Hall agrees that Simpson is hard-nosed when it comes to sentencing, but he says the judge even does that politely.
“No doubt about it, but he does it in a nice way,” Hall says.
People say they just can’t help but like the native North Dakotan complete with Midwestern manners who is described by almost everyone, including Hall, as a gentleman.
“I’ve never done any job in my life that gets me out of bed in such high spirits than going down to the courthouse in the morning,” Simpson says.
So most people—including Simpson—say they were stunned when they heard the news that Wright was challenging him for his seat.
Simpson says he’s pulling out all the stops in the fight for his job, including hiring high-priced political consultant powerhouse Cerrell Associates, Inc. which comes with a $25,000 price tag.
“I’m going all out,” Simpson says. “I’m going to do everything I have to do to win this election.”
Simpson, a self-described political stranger, has had to endure a whirlwind political education, including learning what slate mail is and coming to grips on just how many voters there are in the county.
“You almost have to make contacts on a wholesale basis instead of a retail basis,” Simpson says. “Barbecues in the backyard would be very enjoyable, but you would get a couple of homeowners and a couple of neighbors and that’s it.
“It’s a whopper of a constituency. It’s no wonder people complain they don’t know who their judges are.”
In his spare time Simpson, a former state labor commissioner, works with young attorneys and third-year law school students in the Joseph A. Ball/ Clarence S. Hunt American Inn of Court in Long Beach, lining up speakers and providing them with the basic ins and outs of practicing law.
The associate program has become so popular under Simpson’s watchful eye, older lawyers and judges are now attending the monthly meetings, Vern Schooley, former president of the Inn, says.
“It’s exceptional for such an experienced judge to find time to work with newer attorneys,” Schooley, an attorney with the Long Beach firm of Fulwider, Patton, Lee & Utecht, says.
Simpson handles a civil calendar now, but when he sat in criminal Simpson was part of the non-nonsense panel of judges who helped give the Norwalk courthouse the nickname “No walk” because everyone went to jail, former Norwalk Head Deputy District Attorney John Lynch says.
“It was a defense attorney graveyard,” Lynch says.
A notably harsh sentencer, Simpson left the criminal department soon after California’s three-strikes law went into effect and preremptory challenges began flying across his desk.
“170.6s started raining down on me from the public defender,” Simpson explains.
A self-described original hard-liner on “three-strikes,” Simpson says he is difficult to persuade to strike a strike for the purpose of sentencing.
“[Some people] have a bad feeling for sentencing a man to 25-to-life for stealing a ham or a couple of pairs of Levi’s off a shelf,” Simpson says. “What they forgot is when you get to the third strike point, you’re not dealing with a petty thief, you’re dealing with a recidivist criminal.”
Lynch acknowledges that Simpson is sympathetic to the victims of crimes, but says he isn’t a wayward cowboy who doles out punishment without just cause.
“If you prove someone did a crime, he’ll spank the guy pretty good, but you have to prove it,” Lynch says.
Even though a return to a criminal calendar might not be a possibility for Simpson anytime soon, Lynch and Simpson have a running joke.
If Simpson ever wants to come back to criminal he’ll have a limousine waiting for him for the trip back, courtesy of the deputy district attorney, Lynch says.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company