Thursday, January 20, 2000
Los Angeles Municipal Court
Six Seek Open Seat, One Aspires to Victory in the Primary
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
With six candidates in the race for a Los Angeles Municipal Court open seat, it appears inevitable to most observers that two of them will be in a run-off in November. But Vicki M. Roberts, who will be listed on the ballot as "Attorney at Law," doesn't accept that.
"I'm working hard so I can take the election in March," she says matter-of-factly.
Her name will be on the March 7 ballot along with those of John Ladner and John A. Slawson, each designated as "Municipal Court Commissioner," David M. Mintz, styled a "Criminal Prosecutor/Professor," Ronald R. Silverton, who currently is an "Attorney at Law," and David W. Stuart, listed as "Criminal Trial Prosecutor." Although the post will be listed on the ballot as that of "Judge of the Municipal Court, Los Angeles Judicial District, Office No. One," the reality, in light of trial court unification, is that the winner of the contest will become a Superior Court judge.
Roberts, 40, has no professional campaign consultant, is accepting no political contributions, and says she has no intention of spending any money beyond the $1,076.78 she shelled out for the filing fee and the $11,100 she spent on a candidate's statement. Nonetheless, she insists her goal of an outright win in the primary is realistic.
"It's realistic because I have an extremely broad background in a civil and criminal context," the lawyer explains, adding: "I see that some of my opponents are limited to the criminal context."
Sees No Advantage
Traditionally, candidates with the designation of "deputy district attorney" or "criminal prosecutor" have had an advantage in judicial races over commissioners or private attorneys. Roberts sees no such advantage for Mintz or Stuart, however.
"There are two of them, aren't there?" she asks rhetorically. "They're going to split that [pro-prosecution vote], aren't they?"
She dismisses Stuart's candidacy because the deputy district attorney has no candidate statement in the Voters' Pamphlet—the sole contender who opted not to spend money for that purpose.
Roberts also shrugs off the bids of other candidates, commenting that Mintz's endorsements "are vague" (his candidate statement says he is "endorsed by judges, prosecutors, police officers, defense attorneys and citizens"); Ladner is endorsed by "single human beings rather than groups"; and Slawson "lives in Redondo Beach," outside the Los Angeles Judicial District.
She does not mention Silverton—a two-time unsuccessful candidate for the State Bar Board of Governors who ran on a platform of scrapping the disciplinary system. Silverton was under disbarment for 17 years, regaining his law license in 1992.
Roberts' list of endorsements—which she terms "very eclectic"—includes Abe Oberg, a Holocaust survivor, and comics Fred Travalena and Red Buttons.
In her candidate statement, Roberts draws attention to her membership in a synagogue. She says this was properly included because "it shows that I have a cultural affiliation and that I care and that I have a moral fiber."
Roberts, who has an undergraduate degree from Cal State Northridge and a law degree from Southwestern, cites her nearly 17 years as a lawyer as her major campaign asset—but also claims an election advantage based on being the only female in the race.
That latter factor is "a plus," political consultant Joseph Cerrell agrees. However, Cerrell, whose firm is guiding Slawson's campaign, laughs off Roberts' boast that she will win in March. "One would need a minimum of a quarter of a million dollars" to spend on television advertising to accomplish such a feat, he insists.
Cerrell predicts that Slawson will be frontrunner in the primary and will face an opponent in the run-off. "I'd be stunned if we won it outright," he remarks.
Chances 'Absolutely Zero'
Fred Huebscher, a political consultant who does not have a client in the Los Angeles Municipal Court race, sets Roberts' chances of winning outright in the primary at "absolutely zero." He says that if she does prevail on March 7, he will give $10,000 to charity the following day.
"Chances that she will be in the run-off are extremely slim," the consultant adds. He predicts that she will not attract an appreciable number of votes based on being a woman, remarking that 1992, the "Year of the Woman," is long past.
As he sizes it up, the two commissioners and the two prosecutors are the viable candidates.
Of that foursome, Mintz appears to be the most financially committed candidate. The prosecutor estimates he will plunk $50,000 to $100,000 of his own funds into his campaign coffers.
"I'm clearly going to be in the run-off," he declares.
So far, however, he's paid the filing fee, paid for a candidate statement, and lent the campaign $3,000.
Mintz, 40, says it's experience that separates him from the other deputy district attorney in the race. Stuart was admitted to practice in June, 1994; Mintz was admitted in December, 1984.
Mintz says of Stuart:
"He's a nice guy. Given time and experience, he may make an excellent judge at some point in his career."
Mintz—who received his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from Hastings—adds:
"Nobody involved in this race has the depth of experience trying serious cases that I do."
He downplays the judicial experience of Commissioners Ladner and Slawson, and plays up his role as an adjunct professor of law at Pepperdine University School of Law, remarking:
"What's most important about a bench officer is that he's able to make the right calls—and not that he's had experience sustaining objections. Studying the law and teaching the law would enable me to make the right decisions."
The prosecutor insists he does not inflate his teaching role by listing himself on the ballot as a "Professor." He says that in the public's eyes, an adjunct professor is the same as a full professor. Though he only teaches three hours a week, he remarks, he spends considerable time engaged in activities that would be expected of him if he were a fulltime professor, including writing articles and "keeping up on the law."
Another candidate who stresses his academic qualifications is Slawson, a commissioner of the South Bay Municipal Court. In his candidate statement, he says: "COMMISSIONER SLAWSON is also a law professor teaching evening classes in Criminal Evidence and Business Law."
The commissioner denies that the term "law professor" implies that he teaches at a law school. "Factually," he says, he is involved in "teaching law classes" when he instructs paralegals and law enforcement officers in legal precepts at El Camino Community College.
"I teach the same way I would in law school," Slawson declares.
The commissioner comments that the entitlement of a parttime teacher to use the term "professor" has been "fully litigated and fully tested." His remarks came in an interview that occurred prior to last week's ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe that South Bay Municipal Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan—who, like Slawson, is a parttime instructor at El Camino—may use the ballot designation of "Professor." The prior litigation to which Slawson alluded was a March 3, 1996 writ proceeding in which then-Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Karl Jaeger challenged the use of "Professor" by Citrus Municipal Court Judge Patrick Murphy, his rival for a Superior Court open seat. Then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne allowed the designation.
Slawson contends that the 1996 Superior Court ruling may be cited under California Rules of Court, rule 977 for its persuasive value.
Rule 977 does not address the citation of trial court decisions; it provides that, subject to two enumerated exceptions, unpublished decisions of courts of appeal or appellate departments may not be cited.
Slawson appears to have misspoken, also, in contending that he could not comment on his election rivals because a canon of judicial ethics prohibits doing so. The candidate pledged he would provide a copy of the canon. The interview took place Dec. 17, and since then, Slawson has provided no copy of any canon. In actuality, Canon 5(B)(2) provides that a judicial candidate shall not "knowingly misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position, or any other fact concerning...his or her opponent"; neither that canon nor any other canon proscribes any discussion whatsoever of the opponent.
Slawson has spent $12,000 on his campaign and expresses a willingness to spend up to $20,000 more.
The commissioner, who is 49, was admitted to practice in December, 1977. He has an undergraduate degree from California State University at Long Beach and a law degree from Western State University. For 15 years, he served as city prosecutor for Redondo Beach.
While his 22 years in law exceed those of the two candidates who are touting their "experience"—Roberts, with her nearly 17 years and Mintz with his 15 years—it is Ladner, 53, who has had the greatest longevity in law among the contestants. He was enrolled as a lawyer in January, 1974.
Ladner earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, then took two years off, spending a year touring Europe. He returned to academia, securing his JD from Loyola Law School in 1973.
His first job was as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the District of Columbia, from 1974-76. Ladner then served a stint in 1976 as a as a special assistant to the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles; returned to the HEW, working in its New York office from 1976-77; held the position of Los Angeles deputy public defender from 1977-79; and was in private practice from 1979 until his election as a commissioner by the Los Angeles Municipal Court judges in March, 1983.
When he declared his candidacy for a Los Angeles Municipal Court open seat in 1991, Ladner proclaimed in a press release:
"Commissioner Ladner was first appointed by the Municipal Court Judges in 1983. Since then, he has been assigned full time to perform the same functions as an elected or appointed judge."
The court's presiding judge at that time, Karl Jaeger (now a member of the Los Angeles Superior Court), said of the press release:
"There's an accuracy problem."
Ladner no longer held the position of a court commissioner, Jaeger said. He noted that Ladner had left the court, but was currently back, in the capacity of a retired commissioner serving on assignment of the presiding judge. Jaeger also pointed out that commissioners are not empowered to do everything a judge can do.
The candidate acknowledged that his press release contained inaccuracies. He said he had written it, himself, and commented:
"It was something written rather quickly. It was something certainly not intended to manipulate the facts."
However, in his candidate statement in the current election, Ladner again implies continuous service as a commissioner since 1983 and the power to do whatever a judge can do.
The candidate statement says: "COURT COMMISSIONER since 1983 performing the functions of a JUDGE full-time."
Records show that Ladner was elected by the judges on March 15, 1983 and took office two days later; retired May 23, 1989; gained an appointment from the presiding judge on Feb. 26, 1990; left the court on March 15, 1991 to run for the Assembly (in a special election, coming in 12th in a field of 15 candidates); and returned to the court, under appointment of the presiding judge, on June 10, 1991, remaining a "retired commissioner" until he was rehired as a fulltime commissioner in January, 1998, attached to a federally funded child support court.
In running for the open seat in 1992, Ladner was rated "well qualified" by the County Bar, as were his two opponents, Los Angeles Municipal Court Commissioner Gerald Richardson and then-Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney Stephanie Sautner. Sautner won the seat in the primary, attracting 61 percent of the vote.
An issue in that contest was the allegation that Ladner's sentences were too lenient. Ladner reflects:
"There is a small clique of dwindling numbers in the City Attorney's Office...who found me not to their liking. The perception was: 'You're just too nice to poor people.'"
Ladner recounts that his father, a Jew, fled the Nazis; settled in Canada (where Ladner was born); became a professor in medieval history at UCLA; and converted to Catholicism.
"I was raised to be a person with a social conscience and to be a liberal in political philosophy," the commissioner relates. "My father's Catholicism and his beliefs about the very early Christian Church are at the core of my political upbringing."
He observes that there's a "misimpression that if one has compassion" as a judicial officer, "that somehow erodes law and order."
Ladner stresses: "I don't hesitate to use the criminal sanction when necessary," adding:
"If there is a purpose to a strong punitive action, I have no problem with it at all."
On the other hand, he says:
"I'm not willing to automatically—especially in a non-violent case—to lock up people without trying an alternative.
"I guess I think more in terms of benefit to the society and benefit to the defendant. Jail is not always a benefit to either."
In his present job of presiding over a criminal child support enforcement court, Ladner says, he's no pushover. "It's outrageous, it's unacceptable," he says of the failure of parents to meet their financial obligations to their children. "I have no problem using the power of the court to cause these people to pay their child support," the jurist advises.
Ladner—who predicts he will be in a run-off with either Slawson or Mintz—says he will put between $40,000 to $50,000 of his own funds in his campaign.
In contrast to Ladner's two dozen years in law is Stuart's background of less than a half dozen years. The irony is that if Stuart were to win the contest for the Los Angeles Municipal Court seat, he would, under trial court unification, take office as a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. The normal state constitutional requirement for that office is 10 years' membership in the State Bar. However, under Art. VI, Sec. 23(B), added by Prop. 220, and as clarified by Elections Code Sec. 70216, when a Municipal Court contest is in progress at the time unification takes place, that contest proceeds, and the five-year State Bar membership proviso of the state Constitution applicable to Municipal Court judgeships pertains.
But Stuart acknowledges no dearth of experience. "I've got the experience," he maintains, declaring that he's "done a ton of jury trials."
The lawyer insists: "I've paid my dues."
Being young—he's 34—"gives you an advantage in local courts," he opines, explaining: "Most people who appear as criminal defendants are young—they are under 30."
Stuart, who says that "maybe" he can muster $40,000 of personal funds for the campaign, predicts he will make it into the run-off on the basis of his pro-crime victims platform. "I expect to be in a run-off with Mintz," he discloses.
He notes that he had entered the race before Mintz, and expresses disgruntlement that Mintz would challenge a fellow prosecutor.
Mintz, in turn, retorts: "I don't think he has a property interest in a judicial election simply because he chooses to file for it."
Stuart received his undergraduate degree from California State University at Northridge and his law degree from Loyola. He graduated law school in June 1993 and worked as a research attorney for U.S. District Judge Manuel Real of the Central District of California from August, 1993-August 1994. He was in private practice from September, 1994 until he joined the District Attorney's Office in March 1995.
The sixth candidate in the race is Silverton, who earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from UCLA. He was admitted to practice in 1958, but was disbarred in 1975 following the affirmance by the Court of Appeal of his felony convictions in connection with insurance fraud. Silverton was reinstated as a member of the State Bar in 1992, but continued to skirmish with disciplinary authorities.
Silverton says that the five counts brought against him subsequent to his reinstatement have been dismissed and that he is currently not facing any charges.
"One of the reasons I want to be a judge so badly is that I would get the credibility," the lawyer remarks. "I would later like to go into the world peace movement."
Silverton—who says he's sought no endorsements and has none—is the only candidate other than Slawson to have a professional campaign consultant. He's retained Doug Howard of AMAC, who claims to have handled "over 600 campaigns."
(Howard's role has been that of preparing campaign literature, it's been learned.)
Silverton says he is about to spend $20,000 to disseminate a campaign letter to all voters in the judicial district. Howard discloses that the letter—like Silverton's candidate statement—will stress the candidate's public service, awards, Korean War record, and his juris doctor degree from a local university.
As Silverton sizes it up, there will be a run-off between him and "the person Cerrell represents." Slawson will make the run-off "because of Cerrell," he says.
Howard agrees with that assessment. "Joe knows what he's doing," he remarks, noting that judicial campaigns are "his forte."
The consultant says that Silverton's chances of bagging the job he seeks are "very good," especially now that he's handling the campaign.
Minimizing the chances of Mintz and Stuart, he declares that "not everybody likes prosecutors." The commissioners will fare well, he continues, only if the public is satisfied with the justice system. As to Silverton's chances as against the other private practitioner in the race, Howard says:
"I don't think Vicki Roberts has any name rec. Silverton has a lot of name rec."
With respect to Roberts' contention that being a woman will give her an election advantage, Howard scoffs that women have "been deluding themselves ever since we let them wear shoes."
Howard declines to speculate as to what rating Silverton will draw from the County Bar, remarking: "Those evaluations are really given to the persons with the best connections." He says favorable County Bar ratings, like labor union endorsements, go to those in the "in" group.
Whatever might be said of Silverton, he is not in the "in" group.