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Judging the judges

Democratic Voices

Posted: May 2, 2008 12:15 a.m.
Updated: June 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.
 
As a private investigator, I witness firsthand a competent but timid judiciary at work on a daily basis. Although I am quite proud of our judicial process, many of even the most deserving civil plaintiffs, the most noble and caring parents, and the most innocent victims of criminal misconduct experience frustrations with our court system.

As many of you know all too well, I often voice my concerns regarding the poor sentencing choices our
judges make and scream at their unwillingness to address violations of court orders with any meaningful
action.

One example is the very common practice is perpetuating an endless chain of sentencing a defendant to probation for violating probation. It is common for those who violate terms for probation to be sentenced to more probation time after time after time. I have seen numerous cases in which a defendant will be sentenced to probation for violating probation 10 times in less than 10 years. Obviously, poor handling of misconduct leads only to more misconduct.

Another example of court ineffectiveness is the court tradition of issuing an order to pay a judgment, yet
the judge will later refuse to issue a levy to collect said funds should the defendant not wish to honor the
order. One can only wonder how effective is a court order if the judge issuing the order will not stand
behind the very order he or she issued.

Perhaps the most harmful court tradition is to ignore a parent's use of illicit drugs when determining child
custody. I contributed to a case supporting the prosecution in efforts to safeguard two children from
their drug-dealing parents. We had proven that crack cocaine was being sold in the living room of a house
while the children were tended by a baby sitter in the back bedrooms. The judge ruled that the house was not inherently unsafe because criminal acts committed by the parents in the front of the house were not
directly endangering the children in the back of the house.

If this kind of idiotic action and poor judgment gets your goat, you will find nine contested seats for
Superior Court judge on your ballot for the June 3 California Primary Election.

There are 429 Los Angeles County Superior Court judge positions. The quick description of "Superior Court" is a state-paid and -managed judiciary that rules on state laws and regulations housed in a county
facility. Judges are assigned to "divisions," which include criminal, family law, small claims, civil suits and property.

Our judges run the courtroom, decide on what evidence can be introduced, rule on motions and requests, and control the judiciary process. More often than not, judges also rule and set sentences and penalties.

In California, Superior Court judges serve six-year terms. One-third are up for election every two years.
Therefore, each election year (even-numbered years), there are about 141 offices to be allocated. Most
judicial seats are uncontested. All positions are non-partisan. This year, nine seats are contested and
it is up to us, the voters, to decide who will represent the people from the bench.

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 22, at Vincenzo's Pizza at Lyons Avenue and Interstate 5, our three local
Democratic organizations and our neighbor Democratic club to the south are co-hosting an opportunity for
you to meet some of the judicial candidates running for election. This forum is a unique opportunity for
you to know for whom you should cast your vote.

The inner workings of Superior Court are to most a mystery. Most importantly, you should know that in
most California counties, there is the practice of exercising tight control over our judges. A presiding judge, elected by his or her peers, reviews and ensures conformity over the processes, sentences and rulings. In other words, there is not a lot of room for judges to exercise wisdom, innovation or new sentencing practices.

All rulings, convictions and sentencing must follow strict guidelines. The theory is that the choices that
any judge would make in court are virtually automatic and thereby diffuse any political or personal beliefs
that the judge may hold. The only area in which a judge is truly independent and has wide latitude
pertains to enforcement once a ruling has been made.

Knowing this might help you vote for a better-qualified judge in that following judicial procedures properly is a key component in our local justice system. But how a judge upholds a ruling is perhaps even more crucial.

This leads to what I call "My Big Five" for judges. These are the five qualities I use to rate a candidate for judicial office.
 
* First is process. Any effective judge must be comfortable and thoroughly knowledgeable of our legal
system and judicial process. Experienced attorneys, appointed judges (already served in an un-elected
capacity) and professors of law are usually the most ready for their new role. The candidates running for
these nine seats all seem to possess the experience needed to sit on the bench.

* Second is the degree to which a judge is proactive. Try to determine if a candidate is willing to ask
questions and draw out the truth. So many times I have witnessed judges letting the obvious slip by as they choose not to ask the questions that need to be answered in order for a fair verdict be rendered. I
believe that a judge has a duty to uncover the entire circumstances when deciding a case, and not just sit
back and wait for attorneys to do all the work. 

* Third is a judge's sense of public trust and duty. Many of us, who have been to court, have felt like our
case was treated as simply a pile of papers on a judge's desk. A judge with a sense of duty to due
process and justice understands the impact of making fair decisions and takes every step possible to be
sure that this trust is not ignored.
 
* Fourth, upholding the public trust means that we should expect judges to follow the same laws and
responsibilities that they hold others to in court. To me, there is nothing worse than a judge who is
convicted of a crime or is found liable in a civil suit. We need judges who walk the walk and not just
talk the talk. 

* Finally, and possibly highlighting the most obvious deficiency that I see on the bench, is the degree to
which a judge will take interest and follow up after a case has been adjudicated. While deciding innocence or guilt is more a technical matter of meeting standards of evidence and determining whether or not certain criteria have been met, many judges rarely hold defendants accountable to the terms of a ruling after the case is ruled.

Without serious consequences to disobeying court rulings, these rulings, and our entire judicial system, have diminished meaning. On May 22, please take the opportunity to meet candidates who seek your vote. Learn how each running for Superior Court judge might address this very crucial and often ignored
element.

When you report a crime, file a suit or support the care and protection of a child, know that you voted
for a candidate who is willing put some teeth back into our most sacred system.

Jonathan Kraut is a Santa Clarita resident and is president of the Democratic Club of the Santa Clarita
Valley. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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