Wednesday, December 29, 1999
Los Angeles Municipal Court
Judge Faces Challenge From Lawyer Who Entered Contest by Mistake
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
Richard Rico, a newly appointed judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, one recent morning received a phone call from his court's presiding judge. Veronica McBeth wanted him to know she was sorry to hear the news.
He had been challenged for election in the March 7 primary.
McBeth says she telephoned to assure her colleague that the judges would rally behind him and that he would win--unaware that he had not yet heard of the challenge.
The previous afternoon, that is, on Nov. 1, Glendale sole practitioner Bernita "Susan" Borges had filed to run for Office 44--the seat to which Rico had been appointed on Oct. 14. Upon being questioned by a MetNews reporter as to why she was running against Rico, Borges expressed surprise that there was no longer a vacancy in the office. However, she told the reporter, she had already paid the $1,070 filing fee, so she would stick in the race.
Rico has the ballot designation of "Judge, Los Angeles Municipal Court." Borges, who occasionally acts as a substitute teacher, is listed as "attorney/teacher." Absent some meaningful issue, a candidate labelled "Judge" nearly always will prevail over a rival described as "Attorney." But Rico decided not to approach the race with complacency.
He says his attitude was: "Nuts to this--I'm not going to lose this thing."
Rico paid $5,000 to political consultant Parke Skelton to represent him and plunked down $11,000 for a candidate statement (to be published in the Voters Pamphlet accompanying the sample ballot). The campaign will cost $30,000 to $40,000, he says, vowing to pay personally whatever he can't raise through contributions.
Borges, on the other hand, does not anticipate staging a high-priced campaign. She says she will probably file "the short form statement"--an abbreviated financial statement submitted by candidates who declare an intent not to spent more than $1,000. The lawyer notes: "I haven't gone about raising any funds."
In contrast to Rico's representation by Skelton, who has successfully guided judicial campaigns in past elections, Borges is represented by Robert Carter, whom she identifies as a "friend" who is volunteering his services. Has he ever managed any campaign? "Not to my knowledge," the candidate says.
Rico has been racking up endorsements of colleagues, lawyers and others. Borges admits she has no endorsements.
How does she expect to win?
"My qualifications," the challenger responds.
She says she will be "targeting groups that are likely voter groups."
Borges stresses that she isn't launching an offensive against Rico; rather, she says, her "goal is to become judge of Office 44," which just "happens to be" the office to which Rico was appointed.
"I have nothing against Judge Rico," she remarks. "I don't know him personally."
In discussing her lack of knowledge concerning the judge she has challenged, Borges is not evasive. Has she examined his qualifications?
"No," she answers.
Has she seen his candidate statement?
Does she know anything about his background?
With respect to whether she intends to find out about Rico's background, Borges says she assumes information will come her way, but adds:
"I'm not going to do an individual investigation."
Stanford Law School
Rico's background includes his receipt of an undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1976 and a law degree from Stanford in 1984. While awaiting the bar exam results that year, he went to work as a law clerk for the Los Angeles law firm then known as Breidenbach, Swainston, Yoakitis & Crispo. He passed the bar exam and was hired as an associate.
"I remember how pleased I was with Richard's work," a then-partner in the firm, William F. Rylaarsdam, recalls.
Rylaarsdam left the firm the following year when he was appointed to the Orange Superior Court. Upon his elevation to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Div. Three, in 1995, he hired Rico as a research attorney.
"He knew civil very well," the jurist recounts, but notes that Rico did not have extensive knowledge of criminal law. He says the lawyer was a "very quick study."
Rylaarsdam adds that Rico "did a lot of drafting" of opinions for him, noting that Rico was assigned to "every kind of case imaginable."
He says he hasn't seen his former employee on the bench but suspects that Rico displays ideal judicial temperament.
"He's a very calm, even-handed person," Rylaarsdam observes. "I've never seen him get upset over anything."
The justice sees a bright future in the judiciary for Rico, who is 45, commenting that "after some more seasoning," he would be an asset to the appellate court.
By the time Rico was appointed to the Municipal Court--becoming its only Hispanic member--he was a senior research attorney for the Court of Appeal.
In his candidate statement, Rico contends he was rated "well qualified" by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. Those evaluations, supplied to the governor, are confidential. How does Rico know his rating? "The governor told me," the judge relates.
Borges acknowledges that she does not know what rating Rico reports to have received from the JNE Commission. She also acknowledges that she does not know what the JNE commission is.
Her own background includes receipt of an undergraduate degree from Western State University in Fullerton in 1976 and a law degree from that institution two years later. She was admitted to practice in December, 1978.
Poised and personable, Borges, 55, is a widow and mother of two. Previously a practitioner in Orange County, she hung out her shingle in Glendale slightly more than two years ago.
She says she is in "general practice" and comments: "I cast a wide net."
Borges estimates she appears in court "maybe 12 times a year" and has handled "not a lot--minimal amount" of trials. With respect to handling jury trials, she says there was "at least one I can think of," a drunk driving case which she says she lost.
McBeth says she had not previously heard of Borges and, after Borges filed election papers, asked around about her. "I haven't found anybody who knows her," McBeth relates.
On the other hand, McBeth is unknown to Borges. In an interview, the candidate was unable to identify the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court or the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court (Victor Chavez). Borges did not know of the prospect that the Municipal Court seat she seeks could become a Superior Court post through unification. The only newspaper to which she subscribes, the candidates discloses, is the Los Angeles Times.
McBeth says Rico has been doing "as good a job as any new judge can," noting he has "offered to do whatever needs to be done."
Given the costs of staging a campaign, she observes, the challenge is "going to put him and his family through a lot."
Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 1999