Panel Issues Findings Against Both Martinez,
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Judicial candidate Maria Vargas-Rodriguez improperly tried to pass herself off as a judge in voter materials and the jurist she is trying to unseat, John Martinez, violated guidelines by knowingly accepting money from lawyers with cases pending before him, a county bar panel reported yesterday.
The statement from the Los Angeles County Bar Association's Fair Judicial Election Practices Committee, which comes just two weeks before the candidates' Nov. 7 runoff contest, has apparently raised the temperature of the already bitter campaign for the Los Angeles Superior Court in the Alhambra Judicial District.
The county bar ruling will provide additional fuel in a preliminary injunction hearing against Vargas-Rodriguez slated for tomorrow, Martinez campaign spokesman Mark Siegel said.
Vargas-Rodriguez's lawyer, Bradley Hertz of Reed & Davidson, meanwhile charged that the county bar violated due process and its own rules by failing to require a written complaint from Martinez and failing to serve him or his client with proper notice.
Hertz said he was not informed until the day before the scheduled hearing on his client's complaint that the committee would also be considering a complaint by Martinez.
Neither he nor Vargas-Rodriguez have yet seen a copy of Martinez's complaint, Hertz said.
Hertz also alleged that the panel downplayed what he called the much more serious contention that Martinez knowingly took money from lawyers awaiting rulings from him. He said that finding requires that the county bar, under its own rules, revoke its "well qualified" rating of Martinez.
"We think this is an unfortunate circling of the wagons to protect the incumbent," Hertz said. "We think it reflects poorly on the bar and the judicial race in general."
Barbara Yanow Johnson, chair of the county bar committee, said Hertz never informed the panel of his concerns about the process.
"This is the first I'm hearing of it," Johnson said. "If he feels that way, it is incumbent on him to make that known in the proper fashion."
As for the lack of a separate filing of a complaint by Martinez, Johnson said the panel relied upon the pleadings Martinez filed in a lawsuit to block Vargas-Rodriguez from distributing misleading campaign brochures.
The antagonism between the candidates dates back to the hard-fought March primary election in which challenger Vargas-Rodriguez came out ahead of the incumbent in a three-way race.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Vargas-Rodriguez mailed voters brochures in which she referred to her "judicial colleagues," used the word "Judge" before her name and showed herself in a photograph, dressed in black, between two black-robed jurists.
Martinez filed suit last month to block his opponent from using similar brochures in the runoff. He did not approach the county bar panel until his request for a temporary restraining order against Vargas-Rodriguez was denied by an Orange Superior Court judge on Oct. 10.
In rejecting the TRO and instead setting a preliminary injunction hearing for tomorrow, Judge Kim G. Dunning expressed concern in chambers that Martinez had not gone to the county bar first, according to Vargas-Rodriguez's lawyer.
Martinez then immediately contacted the committee and filed a complaint. Accounts differ as to whether Vargas-Rodriguez had already filed her county bar complaint alleging that Martinez took money from nine lawyers who, she claimed, docket sheets show had matters pending before him.
The 15-member committee of lawyers, retired judges and non-lawyers met one evening last week, then slated a hearing for the next day on both matters.
The panel has no adjudicatory or enforcement authority but selects from a number of remedies for violations of the county bar's campaign guidelines and seeks to get the candidates to agree on a remedy.
Hertz said the only notice of charges he was given against his client was a copy of a request for judicial notice in the Superior Court lawsuit that he said one panel member "held up."
He said the panel failed to follow procedures set forth in a Jan. 26, 2000 letter to the candidates that directed that complaints be made in writing, and that original copies be hand delivered to Johnson, county bar Executive Director Richard Walch, and the party against whom the complaint is being made.
After interviewing both candidates, the panel found that Vargas-Rodriguez's brochures "tended to mislead the public into believing the candidate was already a sitting judge."
Vargas-Rodriguez said she would not distribute similar materials for the remainder of the campaign, according to the committee.
"It confirms what we had been saying all along," Martinez campaign consultant Mark Siegel said. "The materials were in violation of the rules and we believe in violation of the law."
Siegel said the motion for a preliminary injunction would go forward.
He also downplayed the committee's finding that Martinez "violated the guidelines by knowingly accepting contributions from lawyers who had cases before him for decision on the merits."
He noted that the panel found the improper contributions were in small amounts and that they represented a small proportion of Martinez's overall contributions.
There was no order to return the contributions or finding that the money swayed Martinez in making any rulings.
"I think ours was a technical violation, and [Vargas-Rodriguez's] was a major violation," Siegel said. "I view it as they're instructing her not to do it anymore. They're instructing us to be more careful."
Record for the period ending Sept. 30 show that Martinez has raised more than $68,000 for his campaign, much of it in $100 donations from attorneys who practice in the Alhambra courthouse where he sits.
Hertz said he was reluctant to divulge the particular allegations of improper fundraising in his client's complaint against Martinez, citing the county bar's confidentiality rule — although he charged that Martinez broke the rule in one of his pleadings in the court case by referring to his complaint against Vargas-Rodriguez.
Hertz said despite the unfairness of the county bar process — and the fact that the association's press release listed Vargas-Rodriguez's offense first, and in more detail — the findings showed Martinez committed the graver offense.
"They found that Martinez's violation was knowing," Hertz said. "They didn't find any knowing or intentional violation on Vargas-Rodriguez's part."
Hertz said he had not looked into whether Martinez's actions were violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics.
Martinez, in his lawsuit, challenged Vargas-Rodriguez's
brochures under the state Elections Code. Vargas-Rodriguez has filed
a motion to strike the complaint altogether as a Strategic Lawsuit
Against Public Participation under Code of Civil Procedure Sec.
425.16. That motion is currently set for Nov. 1, but Dunning, the
Orange Superior Court judge hearing the matter, set a hearing on
Hertz's request to shorten the statutory time to hear the anti-SLAPP
motion for tomorrow, together with the preliminary injunction hearing.
Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 2000