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Blind Justice: Electing a Superior Court Judge

The primary election on June 5 is more than just state and federal legislators - in case you hadn't noticed (and most of us haven't) there are also judges on the ballot.

Choosing a good melon requires due diligence. You have to inspect the candidates; thump, sniff and weigh them, examine the rinds. Check for bruises and leaks to ensure the fruit hasn't been compromised or corrupted in any way.

But what would happen if you couldn't get up close and personal with the melons?

Well, then you'd have to make your choice based on circumstantial evidence. You could start by checking the labels, which of course were designed and written by those trying to sell you a particular melon in the first place. You could, I suppose, ask the opinion of  some self-described melon experts or others with a background in the melon industry.  But could they be trusted -- particularly if they showed some deep and vital interest in your melon selection? Might they not have a hidden melon agenda?

It would be helpful if the melon could say a word or two on its own behalf, unfortunately, that's counter to what we all believe is a very basic law.

So, where would that leave you? Playing the melon lottery.

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but no knowledge at all is even worse. Without some rudimentary facts, figures, information, how can you choose anything -- dog, car, melon, superior court judge.

Who is Kim Smith, really? Shannon Knight? Craig Gold?

If you don’t know, join the club. When voters hit the booth on June 5, only a small percentage will cast a vote in the LA County Superior judicial elections, and an even smaller percentage will have any idea why they bothered.

Due to the theoretical separation of the three branches of government, everyone has to pretend that judges exist in a bubble, a bubble free of pre-conceived notions and prejudice of any kind.  Which is why the candidates can’t campaign, state a party affiliation, or let us know how they stand on issues such as immigration, gun control, human rights, law enforcement, frivolous lawsuits – you name it. 

It's an odd sort of race, in that we never actually see the contestants run. 

The candidates are allowed a vague written statement regarding their philosophy of law in general. And often these statements are not only elegant but superbly enigmatic.

Election results can be surprising, but only to insiders who know or care who the candidates really are. In 2006, Lynn Olson, who ran a Hermosa Beach bagel shop and had not practiced law for more than 15 years, unseated a veteran judge. Now Olson is the incumbent in next month's election.

It seems, if you're going to vote for a judicial candidate, you have no choice but to base your decision on the endorsement of a third party such as the LA County Bar Association, or a news agency, tea leaves, a blog, or a dartboard.

Oh, I don't know, maybe I'm just irritated because I did a lot of research and ended up none the wiser. Maybe justice should remain an entity or philosophy cloaked in clouds of mystery and tradition -- something pure, august, beyond our reach and comprehension.

On the other hand, I checked on a few of the candidates -- they want you to Like them on Facebook.

Jean Spitzer May 22, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Only sometimes, to both questions. Because getting info about judges requires research.
pusddad May 22, 2012 at 03:15 PM
Karin: you are absolutely right. Very few voters know what they will be getting when they vote for a judge. Even those who know a candidate well cannot always predict accurately how someone will turn out once they start wearing a robe.The best chance of getting elected goes to those that call themselves gang prosecutors and have Irish or Anglo Saxon last names. Call yourself a criminal defense attorney or public defender on the ballot and your fate is sealed, even though they tend to be the hardest on defendants once on they are on the bench.
Laura Monteros May 22, 2012 at 06:33 PM
pusddad: Judge Arabian got eleceted & reelected repeatedly--without the "creds" you outlined. I had a journalism teacher whose crtierion for judges was to always vote against the incumbent. Myself, I read their statements at the end of the ballot, and make a choice based on that. No statements, no votes for anyone. But it is good to remember that judgeships are non-partisan, and while some judges may be stricter or more lenient than others, ultimately they are bound to the law, not ideology. I think experience is more important than a political statement, because a judge can't be any tougher on sentencing gang members than the law allows.
Dan Abendschein (Editor) May 22, 2012 at 07:07 PM
I told Karin this when we were editing this column, but I wrote a little about judicial elections when I was with the Star-News: http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/ci_9221995. I can honestly say that year was the only time I felt like I knew what I was doing picking which judges to vote for, and that was because I met almost every single candidate personally. A few things I learned researching that article was that the most successful candidates are usually former prosecutors are lawyers who have a temporary appointment to fill in as judge and want a full-time gig. In that particular year (2008) the Bar Association was extremely generous to all the ex-prosecutors, giving them high rankings, while all the defense lawyers and the one civil attorney in there had less stellar ones. I don't know the best method to pick judges, but I do think it is important to have some non-prosecutors in there. The Bar Association specifically discourages this as a way to pick judges, but I'm not sure they are right. Not every judge is going to sit through lengthy criminal trials - many will be listening to civil complaints - I think it is a good idea to have some attorneys with that background voted to the bench. Otherwise though, the best option is someone with a decent head on her shoulders... which is why the one year I met the candidates the decisions were easy.
pusddad May 22, 2012 at 08:18 PM
Laura: there is a difference between a race involving a sitting judge running statewide and one with an open county seat. Incumbents almost always win. The exceptions usually involve an incumbent with a foreign sounding name (Khan, Jvantz sp.?) running against a murphy or olson. there is an example in this election: Sanjay Kumar vs. Kim Smith. Arabian got his seats through appointments. He may have had to retain them through an election, but that's different.
Karin Bugge May 22, 2012 at 08:28 PM
Laura, I think the candidate’s statement at the end of the ballot tells us less about the candidate him- or herself, and more about the skills of the communication firm hired to craft it.

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