By Doug Porter
Nobody cares much about judicial electoral contests. And apparently the current batch of judges in Superior Court would like to keep it that way. At least that was the conclusion I drew after talking with more than a dozen local attorneys and prosecutors.
The 2012 judicial elections, where birther lawyer Gary Kreep upset Deputy District Attorney Garland Peed, were a national embarrassment. Since that time, “open seat” judicial contests have all but vanished in San Diego.
One seat, held by Judge Judy Bashant became technically open in 2014 (she had filed for reelection) when her nomination to the Federal District Court was approved by the Senate.
Another potentially open seat was filled by a miraculously timed retirement (Judge Alvin Green on Friday afternoon, January 24) followed by the immediate appointment (January 28) of Keri Greer Katz. Had the retirement been announced on Monday rather than Friday, this would have been an open seat.
Federal prosecutor Carla Keehn originally filed in 2014 for what she thought would be an open seat on the court; then–poof–there weren’t any. She ended up running against Judge Lisa Schall and learned the hard way that the court protects its own.
Eventually, Schall’s conviction for drunk driving was plastered on billboards by Keehn. A few phone calls were made and the billboards disappeared.
When San Diego voters review their June 2016 primary ballots, they’ll (hopefully) notice just two contests for Superior Court judges. The other 38 seats on the court due for voter approval, along with the five open seats for different election cycles, won’t be listed.
How We Got Here
The 1803 Supreme Court ruling in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, enshrining judicial review of legislation as a key power of the courts, prompted a political movement for term limits on judges.
Thomas Jefferson and others believed the decision tipped the balance of power in favor of a new judicial elite. A six-year term, elections, and other provisions to curtail judicial power are part of every state constitution written after 1846.
In the decades following the mid-nineteenth century, judges made it to the bench through popular — and very political — elections. They ran as members of political parties, openly espousing their platforms.
The progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century brought about reforms designed to depoliticize the judicial selection process. California now has a hybrid model of appointments and elections, with candidates going through a screening process by Bar Association attorneys.
Higher court judges in California are appointed and subsequently appear on ballots unopposed (yes or no vote) at re-election time. Superior Court judges can also be appointed, but can be challenged by other candidates as their staggered six-year terms expire.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
Candidates may compete for an open seat caused by retirement or death. In practice, however, open seats due for election are the first to be filled by appointment, allowing the appointee to run as an incumbent. Back in the days before California became essentially a one-party state, some judges (philosophically opposed to the governor in power) would time their retirements in such a manner as to allow for an open seat election.
To be eligible, judicial candidates must have been members of the California bar or served as a judge in the state for 10 years before taking office. A district attorney has to be a state bar member.
From a 2014 Voice of San Diego article:
The debate over whether Superior Court judges should be elected or appointed recurs nearly every election cycle.
Jon Williams, head of the San Diego County Bar Association, said candidates who run for a bench seat avoid the usual vetting that would occur if they were appointed.
“It’s been my observation that there is more interest these days in obtaining the position of judge through the election process,” Williams said. “Back in the day, you didn’t see as many people raising their hand to challenge a sitting judge.”
Prior to Gov. Jerry Brown, the most common path for judicial appointments was through various prosecutor’s offices. In recent times, a number of public defenders and other attorneys have been nominated, though some critical of the courts say those nominations go to people who go along to get along.
From Anna Daniels 2014 SDFP article on judicial races:
…appointed judges are vetted in a way that elected judges often are not. There are a number of sites recommended by the League of Women Voters to find out more about these judges. The two sites which I found particularly helpful are www.courts.ca.gov and judgepedia.org.
From the local Bar Association website:
As a service to voters, the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA) evaluates judicial candidates in contested judicial elections. The SDCBA’s Judicial Election Evaluation Committee (JEEC) evaluates each candidate. The JEEC is comprised of 21 members who represent a cross‐section of San Diego’s legal community by gender and ethnicity, including lawyers from the public and private sectors, civil and criminal law practitioners, corporate counsel, sole practitioners and members of small, medium and large firms. JEEC members are appointed by the SDCBA President and serve a four-year term.
Note the “as a service to voters” part of that statement. The ratings are not part of any legal requirement for a seat on the court. As of this morning (May 5), no ratings have been posted for the June 2016 election.
In San Diego County, the contested seats are:
Superior Court Judge Office 25
James A. Mangione, Incumbent
Appointed in November 2015
From the Times of San Diego:
Mangione, 61, of San Diego, graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law and got his undergraduate bachelor of arts degree from the University of California, San Diego. He fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Christine Koch Goldsmith.
[Married to City Atty Jan Goldsmith]
Mangione, a Democrat, has been a partner at Wingert, Grebing and Juskie LLP since 2002. He was an attorney in private practice from 1999 to 2002 and in- house counsel at Luna, Brownwood and Rice from 1994 to 1999.
Paul Ware, Justice Department Attorney (with Bureau of Alcohol Firearms & Tobacco)
Ran and lost in 2014. Former US Marine Judge.
Superior Court Judge Office 38
Keri Greer Katz, Incumbent
Katz has a long political pedigree in San Diego. Her father, Judge Michael Greer was at the heart of a scandal back a few decades. Her husband is Judge Aaron Katz. She served as chief legal adviser to Mayor Jerry Sanders during her stint at the City Attorney’s office. She was the recipient of the miraculously timed appointment to the bench back in 2014 referenced above.
Carla Keehn, Federal Prosecutor
Keehn also ran in 2014, as referenced earlier in the story.
From the San Diego Free Press profile of her in 2014:
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 rehabilitating 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.
Wait, Wait! (Don’t Tell Me)
This simple article on judicial races is one of the toughest I’ve ever had to write.
No lawyer in his/her right mind wants to be quoted in an article about judges.
There is, I believe, a black-robed wall around the local bench. They take care of their own when it comes to politics. The whole business of fundraising for judicial election campaigns gets hinky, especially when considering the bloodlines and marriages abounding in the court system. One story making the rounds is that 30 of the seats on the court are connected; my research found many of the “connections” involved judges no longer on the bench.
And that’s before dealing with the reality of lawyers, who are by nature politically active, making campaign contributions.
Finally, there’s a cottage industry of people who just hate judges. Try an internet search on a judge and they’ll pop up. Sorting the sore losers from the conspiracy theorists from the people who may actually have been wronged is way above my pay grade. I tried, and lots of “great tips” turned out to be dead ends. People get angry when they lose in court. Sometimes they don’t get over it.
On This Day: 1937 – A Lumber strike begins in Pacific Northwest, involving 40,000 workers by the time victory is achieved after 13 weeks: union recognition, a 50¢-per-hour minimum wage and an 8-hour day. 1955 – The musical “Damn Yankees” opened in New York City. It ran for 1,019 performances. 1961 – Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he made a 15-minute suborbital flight.
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