Feb. 28, 2000
Dawson Cites Canon as Precluding Appearance at Candidates Forum — Oh, Come on Now
A Westside cable television company, Adelphia, on Wednesday staged a "debate," for later broadcast, among candidates for the Beverly Hills Municipal Court. Each participant was allowed to make a one minute opening statement and a one minute closing statement; in between, candidates responded to questions from moderator Bill Rosendahl.
The early frontrunner in the race, attorney Mitchell Dawson, refused to participate. Purportedly, Dawson was abiding by a judicial canon which, he contends, precludes a candidate for a judgeship from taking part in such an event.
It's Dawson's prerogative, of course, to absent himself from a forum. However, in claiming that a canon precludes an appearance, he is misstating the law, and impliedly accusing his rivals—wrongfully—of unethical conduct by participating.
Present at the cable television taping were the other aspirants for the office, Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Hugh Bobys, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Richard Stone, and private practitioner John Khoury.
Canon 5(B)(1) of the Code of Judicial Ethics, cited by Dawson, provides that a candidate shall not "make statements to the electorate...that commit or appear to commit the candidate...with respect to cases, controversies, or issues that could come before the courts...."
I've attended various judicial candidate forums over the past 22 years. Participants in such forums have included respected jurists and jurists-to-be, who apparently spotted no ethical impediment to being there. At each such event, candidates were able to communicate thoughts without addressing any issues that might come before them for adjudication, were they to win election.
Four years ago, a spirited debate, at the same cable station that staged Wednesday's event, took place between two municipal court judges seeking election to the Superior Court; neither Patrick Murphy nor Karl Jaeger committed or appeared to commit himself to any particular rulings.
Candidates can discuss their credentials for judicial office, their opponents' lack of credentials, the significance of County Bar ratings, ideas for improving the system (such as reinstituting night court), and numerous other matters, all without committing themselves to certain rulings if they won their contests.
If a question were to come up at a forum that solicited a response that would contravene the canon, the solution would be simple: decline to answer the particular question, citing the canon—as two of the candidates did on Wednesday. The mere prospect that questions might be asked that should not be answered is no cause for boycotting the event. To the contrary, those who are asking the electorate to give them votes ought to be willing to give voters their time and respond to their questions.
Dawson did meet with this newspaper's editorial board late last year. He was questioned for well over an hour. He shared his views that Bobys and Stone were inappropriately drawing voters' attention to their being Jewish (the judicial district is heavily Jewish) and that voters should fault his rivals for living outside the judicial district. He discussed issues, but did not commit himself to any particular rulings. I don't know how his talking with our editorial board differs from answering questions put by Bill Rosendahl at Adelphia or by persons attending a League of Women Voters candidate forum.
Dawson, in a brief telephone conversation late Thursday, had little comment. The candidate would not directly state if he would now, in light of his interpretation of the canon, meet with an editorial board.
All that needed to be said, a rather testy Dawson insisted, was carefully set forth by him in a letter to Rosendahl, a copy of which he had faxed to a MetNews reporter Wednesday.
The lawyer related that he learned of the canon after the Beverly Hills Weekly had asked each of the candidates to submit 300 words on the "three strikes" law. It was Bobys, he noted, who drew attention to the canon. But, Dawson noted with irritation, he had already recited that in his letter.
There is no mention of any of that in the letter.
What he did say in the letter was that he had been invited to discuss "issues," and that the canon precludes him from doing so. There is, of course, a distinction between discussing election issues, such as the significance of candidates living outside the judicial district, and making a commitment with respect to rulings on "issues that could come before the courts."
Dawson also commented in the letter:
"As a candidate for judicial office, I feel very strongly that I must set an example of following not just the letter but the spirit of the law. I am not alone in this view. I made specific investigation of the Judicial Elections Committee and was advised by judicial members of that committee that it was inappropriate to participate in a debate such as this and was lauded for not participating."
The letter did not identify these "judicial members" and in our telephone conversation, Dawson declined to reveal with whom he had spoken.
I assume that Dawson was referring to a committee of the County Bar, though that's only a guess. The County Bar has a committee which rates candidates, known as the Judicial Election Evaluations Committee, and a committee that looks into campaign misconduct, the Fair Judicial Practices Committee. It has no unit called the "Judicial Election Committee." I inquired whether he was referring to the committee that rates judges. The candidate snorted that the name of the committee was as set forth in his letter.
I am curious as to what "judicial members"—and note that's in the plural—he consulted. The Judicial Election Evaluations Committee has no judges on it. The Fair Judicial Practices Committee includes no sitting judges (by its rules, it can't), but does have one retired judge: former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Philip Saeta. I asked Saeta if Dawson had spoken to him. "Nope, never heard of him," Saeta responded.
As our telephone interview drew to a close, I asked Dawson why he could not appear at forums and simply decline to respond to any particular questions eliciting a commitment as to how he would rule on specific issues. The candidate answered:
"I have no comment on that."
Further inquiry as to his views was foreclosed.
"I'm not going to be bullied into answering questions," he declared.
If Dawson will not answer questions now, one has to wonder whether he would be accessible after the election, should he win it, to community groups that wanted him to speak or to those of us in the Fourth Estate. Lack of accessibility on the part of any officeholder does connote a lack of a sense of accountability.
As to whether he would accept invitations to address community groups, Dawson said:
"It would depend on the nature of the forum and the nature of the questions."
It's difficult to imagine how Dawson could determine whether to address a group based on the "nature of the questions" since he would not know what the questions would be until they were asked. ...Unless, of course, he would condition his appearance on the "nature of the forum" being such that questions would be submitted in advance. Dawson was not inclined to be expansive.
What is clear is that there was no ethical impediment to Dawson appearing at the televised event or at a League of Women Voters forum. The interpretation of the Canon 5(B)(1) which Dawson puts forth is fully as silly as the legal interpretations by two candidates in the Los Angeles Municipal Court open seat race, discussed in previous columns. Attorney Vicki Roberts contends that a County Bar's guideline prohibits all judges from endorsing in judicial races—when, on its face, the guideline only applies to judges who are candidates—and Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner John Slawson says a canon precludes him from criticizing rival candidates, when no such canon exists.
This seems to be the year of candidates taking inane positions on the basis of fanticized ethical compulsions. It is also an election year, like most, where actual violations of the canons are rampant, yet causing little concern.
Copyright, 2000, Metropolitan News Company. All rights reserved.