Monday, January 3, 2000
Downey Municipal Court
Lawyer Relies on Local Ties in Seeking to Unseat Judge From Outside the District
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
To some, Downey Municipal Court Judge Jesus "Jesse" I. Rodriguez—who came to the United States as a teenage Cuban refuge unable to speak English—is an "American success story." But as his challenger in the March 7 primary portrays it, Rodriguez is a failure as a judge; judges must be independent of both the prosecution and the defense, he says, and Rodriguez lets the prosecution do the thinking for him.
The challenger, criminal defense lawyer Kirt J. Hopson, bases his campaign allegation on general impressions he says he has gained through appearing in Rodriguez's courtroom between a dozen to 15 times.
Rodriguez, 51, is a calm and soft-spoken man, a contrast to the gregarious Hopson, 49, who admits to having a problem with his temper. The contrast which Hopson stresses, however, is that he's a local boy—brought up in Downey and a long-time practitioner there—while Rodriguez lives in the South Bay area, some 25 to 30 miles from the Downey courthouse.
The jurist, who is this year's presiding judge, was assistant city prosecutor for Torrance from 1985-91. The city prosecutor at that time was J.D. Lord. When Lord was appointed to the Downey Municipal Court in 1991, Rodriguez became city prosecutor. He then served as a commissioner of the Downey Municipal Court from 1995 until his appointment to a judgeship by Gov. Pete Wilson on Nov. 13, 1997.
Hopson is the son of the late John Hopson, who served as a judge of the neighboring Southeast Judicial District from 1973-93. The son, like his father, worked as a police officer prior to entering law practice. Kirt Hopson wore a badge in the City of Bell for 10 years before passing the bar in 1983.
What is not at issue in the campaign is Rodriguez's temperament. "As far as his temperament is concerned, it's good," Hopson allows. He acknowledges that the judge is "always very courteous to attorneys."
The campaign charges boil down to two: Rodriguez favors the prosecution and is a carpetbagger.
Hopson points to two specific instances which he says reflect Rodriguez's lack of an "independent thinking process" and reliance on the thinking of prosecutors.
He recites that he asked Rodriguez to order a civil compromise in a misdemeanor hit-and-run case. His client, he notes, was a 75-year-old man with no prior record. However, the prosecution did not want the case compromised, and this "swayed his opinion," Hopson complains.
The lawyer tells of another instance, which he says he learned of second-hand:
"A guy [the defendant] lost his mother and wanted to go to his mother's funeral. He wasn't allowed to go there. It was a misdemeanor, a light-weight case."
Rodriguez says he cannot discuss the case in which a civil compromise was sought because it is pending. He disclaims recollection of any instance where he refused to order the release of a defendant to attend his mother's funeral, and notes that last month, he ordered jail doors opened for an inmate, serving a 45-day sentence, so he could attend his father's funeral.
Hopson, whose law office is in Downey and who regularly practices in the Downey courthouse, does not limit his criticism to Rodriguez.
"The whole courthouse is more prosecution oriented," he alleges.
Hopson is particularly critical of Judge J.D. Lord—whom he refers to as "Lords"—who was also up for election this year.
There's no point to filing a Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.6 affidavit of prejudice against Rodriguez, Hopson says, explaining:
"If you affidavit him, you go to [Judge David] Perkins. Perkins is worse. Then you go to Lords. You're going to get in worse hot water."
Hopson maintains that Lord, appointed to the court in 1991, caused Rodriguez to be hired as a commissioner when a vacancy occurred four years later, asserting that this was cronyism. As Hopson tells it:
"When J.D. came in, all of a sudden it appeared that he took over the courthouse. He was running the courthouse, and he brought in his people."
He denominates the process a "coup."
Hopson says Rodriguez "was brought in by J.D. Lords," declaring that "[h]im and J.D. Lords were friends."
He underscores that Lord, like Rodriguez, lives in the South Bay, and remarks:
"I felt there were enough attorneys in the Southeast area that had applied for that position [of commissioner] and were as competent or qualified as Jesse Rodriguez."
(The "Southeast area" encompasses the Downey and Southeast Judicial Districts, as well as portions of the Los Angeles Judicial District, and, as some view it, the Whittier Judicial District. The Downey Judicial District is comprised of the cities of Downey, Norwalk and La Mirada. The Southeast Judicial District is to the west. The South Bay Judicial District, in which Rodriguez resides, is at the southwest corner of the county.)
Hopson points to Rodriguez's election as presiding judge and his selection as "Judge of the Year" by the Southeast Bar Assn. and comments: "I would definitely say all of this is not a coincidence." Hopson adds: "It is not a coincidence that he became PJ as soon as somebody ran against him." He stops short of alleging that Lord engineered this, but does mention that Lord and Rodriguez are "both in courtrooms right next to each other."
The lawyer says he targeted Rodriguez, rather than Lord, "just because of the lack of community ties" on the part of Rodriguez, then adds: "and I thought J.D. Lords was a better judge."
Rodriguez says his appointment as a commissioner resulted from "a decision among the five judges of the court," and questions whether "the judges would be ordered to do anything" by a single colleague.
His election as presiding judge "has nothing to do with the challenge" by Hopson, the judge declares. He notes that he was chosen in 1998 to be the 1999 assistant presiding judge (under Perkins); the assistant presiding judge, in normal course, is elected to the post of presiding judge the following year, he advises. Rodriguez scoffs that unless the judges "had telepathy," they could not have foreseen in 1998 that he would draw an election challenge.
The jurist also insists that the Southeast Bar Assn. award is "absolutely not" the product of any colleague's desire to see him elected. "I don't believe this court, or the court in any other judicial district, has any control over any bar association," he remarks.
Hopson has a reputation in his bailiwick as being hot tempered. He acknowledges:
"Yes, I have a temper. That's one of my faults."
He says he has found that "the older I get, the more I could control it."
The candidate also acknowledges that on one occasion, he was disgruntled by a judge's ruling and, when the court was in recess, blurted out the accusation that the prosecutor, a female, had obtained the ruling through intimate relations with the male judge.
"I thought that the ruling was improper and my mouth, that sometimes gets me in trouble, got me in trouble that day," he recounts.
"I am not a perfect person. Yes, I did it."
He confesses: "Sometimes my mouth overloads my brain."
Hopson also expresses regret over interjecting religion into his campaign. In his candidate statement, he declares: "As a practicing Catholic, I believe our judicial officers have a moral obligation to continue to serve the community after they are elected."
The Downey judicial district has a large Hispanic population—particularly in Norwalk—and that population is predominantly Catholic.
Hopson says he wrote part of the candidate statement himself and that part was penned by his campaign consultant, Leo Briones. The reference to his Catholicism, he discloses, was "at the suggestion of Mr. Briones."
(Briones is married to state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, whose district includes Norwalk.)
While finding fault with his own candidate statement, he also finds fault with Rodriguez's statement. It sets forth that "PRESIDING JUDGE JESSE RODRIGUEZ has decided thousands of cases in Downey Municipal Court for over five years...." Hopson contends that implies he's decided cases for "over five years" as a judge. Rodriguez was a commissioner for three of those years.
If Hopson felt the statement conveyed an erroneous impression, why did he not seek a writ to have it changed?
"I was unaware that I could," he responds.
Rodriguez says he would "respectfully disagree" with the criticism of his candidate statement, explaining: "I have been deciding cases as a judge and a commissioner for that time."
The judge, in turn, makes note that his rival has incorrectly stated that he has been in office for less than a year when, in fact, he was appointed in November, 1997.
A campaign letter sent out by Hopson does state, in part:
"...I strongly feel that elected officials should be just that—elected. The judge currently serving in office #4 has been there less than a year and was appointed from South Bay."
Correcting the record on that point is the closest Rodriguez has come to leveling a campaign accusation at Hopson. He says he wants to take the "high road" in his campaign.
"My experience with Mr. Hopson is limited," he says. "I don't want to get into a situation where I am throwing accusations at him."
Just how limited his exposure to Hopson has been is a matter on which the candidates' recollections differ. In contrast to Hopson's estimate of 12-15 appearances before Rodriguez, the judge sets the number at "three or four times in the last five years."
On one point, Rodriguez was wrong—as he acknowledges. His candidate statement contains this sentence: "He is an active member of the Norwalk, Downey, La Mirada Chambers of Commerce and Rotary International." Pressing his carpetbagger theme, Hopson scoffed that Rodriguez had only recently joined those groups. Rodriguez said in an interview that he has belonged to them since a time predating Rodriguez's announcement of his candidacy. However, the candidacy was announced in October; the Long Beach Press Telegram on Nov. 27 reported that Rodriguez had been inducted into the Rotary Club the previous Tuesday, which was Nov. 23.
Upon subsequent questioning, Rodriguez concedes he joined that group on Nov. 23, though he points out that the processing of his application took a month-and-a-half to two months. "My initial statement as to the Rotarian was incorrect," he says.
Both candidates are highly committed to prevailing, and exude optimism.
The challenger says he has plunked $30,000 of his own money into the campaign, which he says has been matched by a like amount from contributions. He estimates that total expenditures will be in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $120,000.
Predicting he will win, Hopson says:
"I've been in the area. I've got a lot of friends."
Hopson, who is married and has two teenage girls, says he would welcome an 8-5 job with a month's vacation each year, but notes he will suffer a cutback in pay if he is elected to the bench. He relates:
"I've told my kids they're going to be on a budget—and they've never heard that word before."
Rodriguez also expresses confidence that he will win the election—though his approach is to get his adrenaline flowing by supposing he's behind.
"I always fight like I'm going to lose," he explains, adding:
"I always consider myself the underdog. I've always considered myself a person who perhaps has to work harder than some other people."
Rodriguez goes on to say:
"I'm not worried that I'm going to lose. We've mounted a very, very vigorous and a strong campaign. The support that we are receiving is overwhelming."
The jurist is represented by Cerrell Associates Inc., generally considered the leading campaign consulting firm in judicial elections.
He says he has put $50,000 of his own money into the campaign, and relates that "people are saying" that expenditures will run somewhere between $75,000 to $125,000.
Aside from the monetary drain, Rodriguez notes that the campaign "does take time away from the family." His immediate family is his wife, Myrna Rodriguez, a welfare fraud investigations supervisor, and an adopted son, Ryan, who is 4.
If a family photograph had been shot on June 21, 1964, when Rodriguez was 15, it would have included his two younger brothers and his father, 55, and his mother, 47. And if that picture had been taken at Los Angeles International Airport, after the Rodriguezes disembarked from a plane that had taken off in Mexico, the photo would have captured their tears and their smiles. Mexico had been a stopping off point after they had fled from Cuba, which had come under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro five years earlier.
Landing in the United States of America was "so emotional," the judge recounts, adding, "We almost wanted to...kiss the ground."
Young Jesse was enrolled in Fleming Junior High School. His classmates, he brings to mind, "were making fun of me" because he was unable to speak English.
"Initially, I went to school to eat my lunch," Rodriguez says.
He was placed in a typing class. "I learned English from looking at the books I was typing," he recalls.
(The judge notes he is able to type 140 wpm.)
Rodriguez says it took him "three or four years" to gain proficiency in the language.
During his years at Norbonne High School in Harbor City, he helped support the family by washing dishes at the Wooden Spoon, a restaurant in Torrance. While matriculating at Cal State Long Beach, Rodriguez earned money changing tires at Sears Roebuck.
He obtained a bachelor's degree in Spanish, his native tongue, intending to teach the subject. Instead, however, he veered into law. Working full-time for the County of Los Angeles—first as an eligibility worker for the Department of Public Social Services, then as a law clerk for the District Attorney's Office—he earned a JD from Northrop University School of Law (now West Los Angeles School of Law) in Inglewood.
Rodriguez passed the bar exam on his second try and was admitted to practice in June, 1979, moving from the job of law clerk to that of a deputy district attorney. He remained with the office until gaining his post of assistant city prosecutor in Torrance in 1985.
As a prosecutor, he encountered some of those who, as teenagers, had teased him in school. Now they were defendants.
"I give you my word of honor, I never made a [prosecutorial] decision based on what happened in the past," he vows. "Never, ever did I say, 'Do you remember me in 1965?' "
While Rodriguez was born in a foreign country, Hopson was born in Huntington Park, next door to the Downey Judicial District. He attended Downey High School.
After earning units at Cerritos College, a community college in Norwalk, he obtained a Bachelor of Science in Law degree in 1981 from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton. Hopson passed the bar exam in 1983 after three unsuccessful efforts.
His ballot designation is "Retired Policeman/Attorney."
Rodriguez boasts the endorsements of Supervisor Don Knabe, Sheriff Lee Baca, a spate of judges, and numerous local officials and law enforcement groups. Two public entities—the Downey School Board and the Norwalk-La Mirada School Board—have taken the unusual action of voting to endorse the judge.
No sitting jurists are backing the challenger, but Hopson does enjoy the support of retired Southeast Municipal Court Judge John W. Bunnett, a law school classmate and longtime judicial colleague of Hopson's father. Bunnett says he has "heard nothing bad about Kirt," but by the same token says of Rodriguez: "I hear no complaints about him."
It's the carpetbagger issue that underlies Bunnett's endorsement. He says that Hopson is "more local" than the incumbent.
"The governor has seen fit to appoint people from out of the area," he notes, with apparent reference to former Gov. Pete Wilson, who tapped Rodriguez. "I'm a great believer that the local attorneys deserve the positions."
Voicing similar "local preference" sentiments is Downey attorney John A. Bunnett, son of the former judge. He cites as a campaign issue the cry that Lord "brought Jesse in as a commissioner" notwithstanding that "Jesse came from Torrance."
Despite his persisting disgruntlement over that, he acknowledges: "I really can't say anything bad about Jesse." In fact, Bunnett has some praise for him, hailing Rodriguez as "a good person" and "a fair minded judge." The lawyer adds:
"As a human being, I find him very concerned, and compassionate and caring."
He sums up Hopson in these words:
"Very aggressive attorney, knows the law, excellent citizen."
Bunnett notes that he feels obliged to support Hopson because Hopson backed his brother, Downey attorney Daniel Bunnett, in his ill-starred 1990 race for the Downey Municipal Court.
Downey attorney Ernest MacMillan says he has appeared before Rodriguez "probably about a dozen times" in criminal matters. He relates: "I've never felt a bias on his part for either side."
MacMillan describes the jurist as "a very good judge, very patient, very fair."
Criminal defense attorney Lawrence Young, who also practices in Downey, terms Rodriguez "extremely fair." He says he has appeared before him 35-40 times.
"He's not a milquetoast," Young reports. "He's tough. He stands up for law and order."
On the other hand, Young says he has presented defense arguments to Rodriguez and "he has listened and he has responded in a positive manner" where the facts and the law warranted it. "I wish we had more like him," the defense lawyer comments.
MacMillan and Young each said he had insufficient knowledge of Hopson to comment on his candidacy.
One leading practitioner in Downey who has appeared before Rodriguez also rejects Hopson's contention that the jurist leans toward the prosecution. "I found Jesse pretty fair," he remarks, speaking on condition of anonymity. The incumbent, he says, has "a lot of respect of local attorneys."
Rodriguez, he continues, is a "very pleasant man" and is fair, yet is able to keep proceedings running at a clipped pace.
The lawyer says of Hopson: "He's an aggressive guy."
Another top lawyer in the vicinage, who says he has appeared before Rodriguez numerous times, comments:
"Jesse Rodriguez is as fine a human being as I've ever known....He's not only a good human being, but he's bright.
"There's not one bit of pomposity or arrogance or elitism about him."
Of Hopson, he says:
"He's a good lawyer, strong advocate, always fights extraordinarily hard for his clients."
The lawyer, who also asked that his name not be used, adds:
"Some people say he's a hothead. Some people say he has a short fuse."
He observes that Hopson does enjoy popularity among colleagues and speculates that Hopson would be receiving "a lot more support from the bar" if he had targeted one of the other three judges who were up for election this year.
As he sizes it up, the election "will probably be close."
Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 2000