Metropolitan News-Enterprise
March 3, 2000
Page 8

Pledge Is Attributed to Judge Rico to 'Fight to Protect Seniors' Rights'

Having turned 55 a month ago, I find I am now viewed as a constituent of that special interest group known as "senior citizens." I've received a slate mailer from a group dubbed "The Coalition for Senior Citizen Security."

The piece proclaims:

"YOU, the Senior Citizen, can make your voice be heard loud and clear! This Election Day, vote for candidates who CARE about Senior Citizens!"

Among the candidates spotlighted in the flyer who care about us old folks is one who offers the pledge:

"Will fight to protect Seniors' rights."

And who is this stalwart champion of the causes of that special interest group to which I now belong, this knight who readies to do battle to protect our rights?

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard E. Rico, a candidate in Tuesday's primary.

A pledge to "fight" for a cause is often heard from candidates for legislative and executive offices — but not judicial offices. Those running for judgeships commonly pledge to be "firm but fair" and to "uphold the rights of all citizens."

But there it is, in black and white: Rico, who faces a token election challenge, is portrayed as running on a platform not simply of "upholding" seniors' rights, but fighting for them—communicating an intention of engaging in judicial advocacy.

Just how does Rico propose to go about fighting for the rights of us oldsters?

"I'm not sure, to tell you the truth," Rico responded when I asked him about the matter yesterday morning.

The judge said he has not seen the slate mailer in question (at age 45, he would not have received one in the mail), and added:

"It's kind of a mystery to me."

Rico said he authorized Skelton to pay for his name "being on the slate mailers," but did not give approval to any stances being ascribed to him.

He declined to disavow the pledge to "fight to protect Seniors' rights," however, explaining that he wanted a chance to review the slate mailer and confer with Skelton.

Skelton told me: "We had nothing to do with that text," advising that it was inserted by the slate mailer company. He commented that "it seems weird" that the company would stick such a slogan under the name of a judge.

Rico's campaign finance statement shows payments for inclusion on eight slates, at rates ranging from $400-$1,000. Skelton acknowledged that he did not see any of the slate mailers before they went out. "They won't show them to you," he noted.

He dismissed the idea of insisting that the slate mailer company immediately dispatch a leaflet with a correction, scoffing, "They won't do it."

Dora Gill, senior account executive at Cerrell Associates, Inc.—the firm most closely associated with judicial contests—confirms that those who pay for the inclusion of a candidate's name on a slate mailer customarily do not see the flyers before they are disseminated.

Whatever might be a judicial candidate not remiss in failing to insist on seeing how he or she is to be portrayed in campaign literature?

Rico has, even if unwittingly, run on a platform of fighting for seniors. Any person with knowledge of the slate mailer "might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial" in any case involving the rights of a senior, arguably triggering an obligation on the part of Rico to recuse himself under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.1(a)(6)(C).

For a slate mailing company to gratuitously insert a slogan beneath a candidate's name is probably a rare event. Skelton said the Rico campaign did not pay for text under the name, and if it had, he would have written the text. Nonetheless, there are various other ways a candidate could be misportrayed in a piece of campaign literature and prudence would seem to require seeing that literature before it goes out.

The best reason why judicial candidates are ill-advised to buy space on slate mailers blindly is that they could be linked in the minds of recipients of the slates to causes—of a partisan political nature, for example—with which a candidate for a judgeship should not be associated.

Gill recalled an election in which clients of the Cerrell firm were upset that their names had been included on a slate mailer which took a stance on abortion rights.

The slate mailer I received includes a disclaimer, in small print, which reads: "This document was prepared by The Coalition for Senior Citizen Security, NOT AN OFFICIAL POLITICAL PARTY OR ORGANIZATION." Notwithstanding that verbiage, all but the most sophisticated would assume that something called "The Coalition for Senior Citizen Security" is an organization, especially in light of the impression the mailer creates that the entity is engaged in ongoing activities in support of a certain agenda. The piece reads:

"OUR PLEDGE: '....We will always fight for the strengthening and total preservation of Social Security."

Inasmuch as Rico is running for a judgeship, the assurance attributed to him that he will "fight to protect Seniors' rights" is most apt to be read as a declaration that he would protect those rights in his capacity as a judge. However, given the impression that the mailer is produced by some standing organization dedicated to "strengthening" social security, the pledge could also be perceived as including participation in the campaign for legislative action to boost benefits.

In truth, by the way, no such organization as The Coalition for Senior Citizen Security exists. The address listed for it on the slate mailer is that of the David L. Gould Company, which acts as treasurer for slate mailer companies.

Rico, late yesterday afternoon, after having reviewed the slate mailer and having talked with Skelton, would not out-and-out disavow the pledge to "fight to protect Seniors' rights." He said: "I disavow it to the extent that I didn't make it." He also said: "I'm fighting to protect the rights of everyone," "I'm going to fight to be a fair and impartial jurist," and "I'm fighting for justice."

He would not say, flat out, that he does not promise to "fight to protect Seniors' rights" or to fight for the rights of any other particular group.

One would hope that any judge would be willing to readily commit himself or herself to judicial neutrality and to repudiate any unauthorized promise attributed to the judge to be a "fighter" on the bench for the rights of any special interest. Rico wouldn't, instead dancing around the issue.

This might well be attributed to Rico's lack of experience in publicly commenting on issues. Appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court on Oct. 14, he has not previously been involved in an election campaign.

He drew a challenge on Nov. 1 from a lawyer who took out papers to run for Office No. 44, thinking it was an open seat, and who, after being apprised that Rico had been appointed to the post, filed the papers, anyway. She explained that she might as well run since had already paid the filing fee. Rico, playing it safe, decided to take the challenge seriously, and to spend some money.

Although the Los Angeles Municipal Court no longer exists, in light of unification, the contest remains listed on the ballot as one for the Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Copyright, 2000, Metropolitan News Company. All rights reserved.