After all of the hype of the presidential primary, the confusion of various state propositions and local initiatives, and the backbiting of contentious mayoral and city attorney races, San Diego voters may be surprised to find three contests for Superior Court judgeships at the very bottom of their ballot. While the other races often seem to offer only posturing and empty rhetoric, judge elections operate under an entirely different set of rules, ethics and constraints. Not to mention that in judges we expect to find integrity, honor and high standards-expectations we long ago abandoned for our other political figures.
In the largest of this year's three Superior Court contests, five candidates, including Joseph Brannigan, Dave Hendren, Lisa Laqua, Edward Peckham and Daniel Sullivan, are all vying for the soon-to-be-vacated judgeship in Office 24. With so many candidates and more than 50 percent of the vote needed to win the election outright, the race will almost certainly end in a November runoff between the top two vote getters in this election.
But winners will be declared when incumbent judges face challenges in the two other Superior Court contests. In the race for Office 5, James McMillan is hoping to unseat Judge Kevin Enright and in Office 8, Robert Plumb is trying to send Judge Robert Coates packing. However, previous elections tell us both challengers, McMillan and Plumb, face long odds of winning.
While not entirely perfect, races for Superior Court judgeships are anything but politics as usual. That might help explain why they are historically among the most ignored elections. According to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, of the nearly 700,000 voters who turned out for the March 2000 primary election, more than one third declined to vote in Superior Court races.
Although these seemingly inconsequential elections are afterthoughts for most voters, the winners have more power than many realize. A strong argument can be made that Superior Court judges can have a greater impact on the lives of ordinary San Diegans than the President of the United States.
Brannigan, a federal prosecutor and candidate for the judgeship in Office 24, notes that Superior Court judges rule on all of the civil and criminal cases that come before state courts. In San Diego County alone, Superior Court judges handle more than 4 million causes of action each year.
"You can have a proposition that's voted on by the people or a law that's passed by the legislature and it can be declared null and void by a judge," he says. "Judges are the people's representatives in the judicial branch. There is a lot of power right there."
In San Diego County there are currently 126 Superior Court judges and two vacant seats. Each judgeship is assigned an office number, which only serves to distinguish them and does not correspond to a geographical location or specific judicial assignment. Judges serve six-year terms, and roughly one third of the 128 seats are up for grabs every election year. Because they are tough to beat, sitting judges are rarely challenged and because unopposed elections do not appear on the ballot, the general public only sees a fraction of these otherwise ceremonial elections.
The truth is that the vast majority of judges are never actually elected to office. Most are appointed by the governor after a sitting judge retires before the end of his term. The two currently vacant judgeships in San Diego County will be filled when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appoints judges. When the governor appoints replacements, they hold the seat until the end of the original judge's term. If the appointed judge is not challenged in an election, he will continue to hold the position for another six years. A judge may serve an unlimited number of terms consecutively.
When a sitting judge decides to retire at the end of his term, as Judge J. Richard Haden from Office 24 did, a flock of attorneys, all patiently waiting to shed the slimy coats of their profession and dawn the dignified robes of judgeship, rush to get their name on the ballot.
To qualify, a candidate must have been a member of the California Bar or a state judge for a decade prior to the election and be both a registered voter and U.S. citizen. They also face an unofficial review by their peers. The San Diego Bar Association conducts a secret survey of its members and holds closed-door interviews with each candidate before giving them a rating of well qualified, qualified, lacking qualifications or unable to evaluate. The ratings serve as a good indicator of how the candidates' colleagues feel they will perform as judges, but are not scientific.
Lisa Laqua, an attorney and candidate for Office 24, was the only candidate in this election to receive a rating of lacking qualifications. However, she contends that during her interview she was asked if she sleeps with judges to get favorable rulings.
"I thought that was absolutely appalling," she says. "Just the fact that question would be asked made me seriously question the integrity of that organization and make me wonder if I was getting a fair shake with them."
Laqua, the only woman running for a judgeship this election, did say that she dated a judge in the past but that he never presided over any of her cases. She says she still hopes to pick up a large percentage of women voters and win Office 24 outright.
In some instances, such as the races for Offices 5 and 8, an attorney will challenge a sitting judge, but it's a gutsy move and a difficult feat to pull off. Cathy Glaser, campaign services supervisor for the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, says in her 30 years at the registrar's office she can only remember one sitting judge who lost on the ballot.
"Sitting judges rarely get challenged and even more rarely do they lose," she says.
While the brave souls who challenge sitting judges may be ambitious, she says they should not be mistaken for crackpots. Challenges often arise because of conflicting legal opinions or disputed rulings in cases, but one current candidate, McMillan, who is running for Office 8 and also made an unsuccessful bid for a judgeship in 1992, says he sees challenging a sitting judge as a public service.
"There are judges floating around out there that shouldn't be judges," he says. "I'm able to do something about it-I can run. I think even if I lose, my opponent will be a better judge for it. He has to go out and meet the people and he hasn't had to do that before."
When a new candidate is elected to the bench, he is not guaranteed the office or assignment of his predecessor.
"It is up to the presiding judge to assign judges to responsibilities and locations," says Stephen Love, executive officer of the San Diego County Superior Court. "Typically those are one-year assignments."
This flexibility allows a candidate challenging a sitting judge to pick his opponent from the crowd of 25 or more sitting judges whose seats happen to be up for election that year.
"I just picked the target that has the most baggage," says McMillan.
While the races for Superior Court judgeships are nonpartisan, they also lack one of the key components of most elections: issues. Because the judges are bound by the Judicial Code of Ethics, they are forced to bite their tongues on all cases, controversies and matters that may someday come before the court.
"Judges, irrespective of their personal views or beliefs, have a duty to follow the law," says Judge Enright, who currently holds Office 5. "The personal beliefs and views of the individual judge are ultimately not relevant to the judge's role in our society."
With little more than the weather to talk about, candidates are forced to rely heavily upon on their candidate statements, which appear in the sample ballot, to explain why they are well suited for a position on the bench. Many include their educational background, professional experience and the types of cases they have tried in the past. Some list the endorsements they have collected, especially those from individuals or groups within the legal community. These endorsements do seem to have some sway with voters as the candidates who lack them often have a tough time getting elected.
Peckham, a candidate for Office 24, says he knows police and judicial endorsements are important, but he has not sought them to avoid the appearance of bias. "It has gotten to be a real emotional and philosophical challenge for me to not seek endorsements while at the same time wanting to get elected," he says.
Despite no fundraising limits, most Superior Court candidates raise less than $20,000, according to the registrar's office. It's not uncommon for many to pay the majority of their campaign bills with their own money.
Although some candidates may employ a part-time campaign consultant, their campaign staffs are typically small, comprising just a handful of volunteers. While the candidates try to walk precincts in person, they often also end up hanging their own signs on telephone poles around the county.
"For the most part, my campaign is me, my wife and my family," says Hendren, a deputy district attorney and candidate for Office 24. "It's not like I have some big machine here."
Of course, the races for Superior Court judgeships are not entirely free of the typical trappings of politics. Given the opportunity, many of the candidates in this election will fire shots across their opponent's bows, but lack of media attention and public interest serves to dampen their power and limit the impact of their political rhetoric.
As always, incumbents have an advantage because they have a record to run on. Thousands of jurors and trial participants have already had the opportunity to see the judges in action. As an added bonus, many uniformed voters tend to take an "if it's not broke don't fix it" approach to these contests and titles like "superior court judge," "federal prosecutor" and "deputy district attorney" may carry more weight with voters than "lawyer" or "attorney."
"I think there is a different perception between lawyers and judges," says Hendren. "Judges are well esteemed and respected and, well, you have heard all of the jokes about lawyers."
Finally, Superior Court judgeships make excellent springboards for those ambitious individuals who aspire to eventually cash in the everlasting dignity of their position for fleeting political power. Just ask San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy, who spent a decade as a Superior Court judge before sidestepping over to his current position.
Those voters still not convinced that the contests for Superior Court judges merit their attention on Election Day may wish to consider that in California next month judges are expected to rule on the legality of San Francisco's homosexual marriages, decide the fate of death-row inmates, sentence convicted murders, settle divorces and resolve thousands of traffic violations. In short, their decisions will impact nearly every citizen in ways we cannot yet fathom.Which candidate is best for the job? For whom should you vote? We wouldn't presume to know. You be the judge.