By Eva Posner
It’s no secret San Diego is suffering from election fatigue. First there was the mayoral primary in June 2012, then the general in November. For reasons we all know, another race for mayor started less than a year later in September of 2013. The primary was held in November and we are coming up on the general on February 11.
Unfortunately there will be no rest for the weary, because no sooner will we know our next mayor than the battle for Congress will begin in earnest. And Governor. And Assembly. As well as ballot measures regarding the Barrio Logan Community Plan Update and likely the Linkage Fee. Maybe recreational marijuana or a minimum wage proposition as well.
With energy and money being spent on high profile races and hot button issues, even the most ardent politicos can sometimes ignore races further down ballot. Which is how we end up with people like Gary Kreep, the birther judge who made San Diego a laughing stock long before Filner, getting elected to office.
At a certain point, you can’t really blame the voters for not knowing all there is to know about every candidate and every issue they are asked to decide on. And perhaps there is room to debate whether judges should be elected at all.
But they are.
And that’s where Carla Keehn comes in. She’s running in an open seat race for San Diego County Superior Court Judge. And although June and November will see crowded ballots, we should all do our best to pay attention.
“An average citizen is more likely to come in contact with a sitting Superior Court judge than the mayor, or state senator, or city councilmember,” said Keehn. She’s right. Whether it’s a traffic violation, a petty crime, or a custody battle, a judge can have a direct influence on your life.
“It’s important to know with confidence the person making that decision has the life experience, the legal training, dedication, focus and concern to treat your life with energy and concern and intelligence,” she said. “Whether you’re a civil litigate, a criminal defendant, or the victim in a criminal case.”
“You also want a judge to have a conscience. And to me, conscience is a deliberate effort to follow the rules,” said Keehn.
This is important because by law and the judicial code of ethics, being a judge is a nonpartisan position. And even though every human being has a worldview that will seep into his or her decision-making, a good judge is as objective as possible, only looking at the evidence presented in the case and leaving any bias at the door to the courthouse.
Keehn has a long history in law and public service, on both sides of the courtroom. She’s been an Army Judge Advocate General Officer, a public defender, an environmental attorney, and has worked in the US Attorney’s Office in San Diego as a federal prosecutor since 1995. She has worked on cases ranging from drug smuggling to assault on infants, but she says her current position, as coordinator for the Federal Diversion program, is one of the most fulfilling things she has ever done.
A pilot program for rehabilitant of nonviolent federal offenders, the Federal Diversion program has been remarkably successful in San Diego. 500 people have gone through it, kicking their drug habits and gaining the life and job skills they need to be productive members of society. 80% of graduates are employed by the end of one year. And only 3 in 100 people have relapsed into crime. The program Keehn oversees saves taxpayers huge sums of money, costing 10% of what it costs to imprison someone.
“Whether you call yourself a liberal or a conservative it’s a very effective way to turn people away from a criminal lifestyle,” said Keehn. “It’s been thrilling. It’s been one of the most inspiring things I’ve done as a lawyer.”
Keehn, a mother of three, spent a lot of her life as a single working mother. When she and her wife, Sandra, got married in 2011, the federal government refused to recognize their union, depriving Sandra of any spousal benefits. But in 2013, when the Supreme Court ruling in Windsor v. United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Karla and Sandra were able to make their marriage official.
“In real powerful daily ways, I have seen that it isn’t just what the law is, but how it’s applied that makes a difference to people,” Keehn said.
Keehn said she would strive to make sure the law is applied fairly to anyone who walks into her courtroom.
“What excites me about being an American is that we are a system of laws that are applied equally and fairly. You know when you step into the courthouse, whatever your color is, no matter how much money you have in your pocket there is one set of laws and it’s going to apply to you. No matter what your name is, no matter where you were born, you’re going to be treated fairly in that room.”
Whether or not that is true depends heavily on the judge sitting on the bench in front of you. We as an electorate have a heavy responsibility in choosing that person. We should pay attention.
Yes, it’s one more race to add to the mix. Yes, 2014 is going to be politically exhausting. But getting educated on judges races could pay off in a real way. The next time you get a speeding ticket or get called for jury duty, you’ll care who you voted for.