Illustration by Adam Vieyra.
The Palm Court room of the U.S. Grant Hotel is swarming with jurists-judges and private attorneys in suits and ties, munching on grilled vegetables with Gorgonzola dressing and red-pepper hummus. Next to the cocktail bar, a large poster rests on an easel, advertising the purpose of the April 22 mixer: City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Public Defender Henry Coker are raising campaign funds for four sitting Superior Court judges who've drawn challengers for the June 8 election.
"This is a time that is it important for us to be a friend to these challenged judges, both on the bench and off," Judge Kevin Enright, who presides over the court and also co-hosted the event, tells the crowd. "It's a time for support. It's a time of coming closer to them, and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you on behalf of all our judges for doing so."
Through Enright's speech, Dumanis is the first and loudest to applaud. After mingling, the attendees filter out of the room, carrying yard signs under their arms and leaving check-filled envelopes on the table.
In the first quarter of 2010, the four judges-Lantz Lewis, Robert Longstreth, DeAnn Salcido and Joel Wohlfeil-raised close to $100,000 between them. Much of the money was donated by other judges, but tens of thousands came from private law practices. Based on the turnout at the event, as well as the other fundraisers currently advertised on the candidates' websites, tens of thousands more will come to light in the judges' next campaign disclosures.
Three of the four challengers-Bill Trask, Harold Coleman and Larry Kincaid, who are running against Longstreth, Salcido and Wohlfeil, respectively-have filed forms declaring they plan not to raise more than $1,000 during the campaign cycle. The other candidate, Craig Candelore, says he plans to fund-raise, but in the first quarter, he collected only a $1,000 loan from a family member.
One reason the sitting judges may be fund-raising so aggressively is that it's unclear what they're up against. A conservative political committee called Better Courts Now is mounting a coordinated campaign for all four challengers. The leader of the group, Pastor Don Hamer, died in March, leaving the campaign up in the air. In its March disclosure report, the group reported only $2,000 in donations, half of which came from Candelore and his mother. The disclosure included a note that the committee's treasurer would amend the report once he tracked down the deceased's records.
So far, no amendments have been filed-and yet, the organization continues to upload high-quality video testimonials to its website, Bettercourtsnow.com.
Supporters of the incumbents are attacking the challengers, claiming that their partisanship threatens the independence of the judiciary. Indeed, the four challengers are endorsed by the San Diego County Republican Party and are campaigning at Tea Party-related events around the county.
"There's a need for people to realize that an attack on the bench is not a good thing," Dumanis tells CityBeat . "We need to make sure that people stay non-partisan and are making decisions without having a predetermined result. In other words, [the challengers] are running on ideology."
Candelore counters that Dumanis' fund-raising-even though she's a Republican supporting four Democratic judges-itself jeopardizes the political independence of the courts. He says that the issue of how judges fund their campaigns may become a bigger issue than Better Courts Now's claim that the current judges don't reflect the community's values.
"You have prosecutors that are raising money for judges in front of whom they're trying to appear," Candelore says. "That just gives the appearance of impropriety, and any reasonable person will realize that you fund-raise [for a candidate] for a reason. Why? Because you're currying favor . There really should be public funding if we want our courts to be impartial."
Goldsmith, whose campaign committee donated $500 to Lewis, disagrees with the first part of Candelore's argument, but agrees that California should consider publicly financing judicial campaigns.
"I do think there's a problem there, and it puts everyone in an uncomfortable position as far as contributions to judges' campaigns and also the politicization of the judiciary," Goldsmith says. "There may be better ways to do it and may be better ways to finance it. The way it is right now doesn't sit well with me." Fund-raising is a necessary evil, Goldsmith says, if only because running a countywide campaign is a costly endeavor.
To deal with the issue, the California Judicial Council-the rule-making branch of the state court system-endorsed a measure on Feb. 26 to require judges to disclose in open court when a party or attorney in a case has donated $100 or more to a judge's campaign. The policy, which needs to be approved by the California Supreme Court, would also require judges to excuse themselves when they have received more than $1,500 from a party.
At least one judge is already taking the $100 rule into account. On the donation page of his website, Wohlfeil "strongly encourages attorneys and individuals who may appear before him in court to limit their contributions to $99." This would allow Wohlfeil to keep the contributions secret in court, as well as in campaign finance reports. So far, Wohlfeil has reported smaller contributions. Longstreth, however, has not: $1,350 of his contributions doesn't include the donors' names. (Longstreth has also raised $48,000 more than the other judges combined, including substantial sums from attorneys at DLA Piper, a firm where he used to be a partner.)
In June, voters will decide whether to approve Proposition 15, which would allow for public campaign financing in the Secretary of State race. If passed, this would also lay the groundwork for reforming judicial races, since it would repeal a 1988 prohibition on public campaign financing, according to Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, which is backing the ballot proposal.
"Judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters of our laws and not possibly beholden or viewed as tainted by campaign contributions," Lange says. "Typically, the only people who care [enough to contribute] are lawyers and potential criminal defendants who will be tried before those judges.
Lange points to the coal company Massey Energy-the operators of the West Virginia mine where 38 miners died this month-which spent several million dollars to elect a state appellate judge who later voted to overturn a verdict against the company. Nevertheless, Lange says voters shouldn't necessarily sweat the smaller donations.
"A $99 contribution is probably not going to be too corrupting, but whenever you're talking about larger sums of money or people that are bundling contributions"-such as with the Goldsmith-Dumanis-Coker fund-raiser-"then definitely [judges] literally owe their election to those campaign contributors."
Judge Lewis says the whole campaign process makes him feel "very awkward," particularly as the race becomes more and more political. That's why he welcomes the support of local attorneys, which he says is an indication he and his colleagues are seen as competent and fair by the legal community.
"People who know about the judiciary should have the right to indicate whether they think someone is qualified or unqualified," he says. "I feel uncomfortable talking about this because, to me, this is something that's becoming too partisan."
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Correction: Proposition 15 mislabeled Proposition 16 and that error has been corrected.