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Knowing more about our judges

Democratic Voices

Posted: May 27, 2008 4:54 p.m.
Updated: July 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
 
In just a week, California's citizens will be voting for various political candidates-including individuals who want to serve as superior court judges in Los Angeles County.

Thirty candidates are vying for 11 judicial seats on the Los Angeles Superior Court - the largest Superior Courts system (trial courts) not only in all of California but in the entire United States.

The Santa Clarita Valley Democratic clubs recently provided a forum where candidates running for judicial seats had the opportunity to introduce themselves to voters and answer questions. (In addition to the judicial candidates, assembly, senate and congressional candidates were in attendance also to discuss their platforms).

The superior courts are the lowest level of state courts in California holding jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, as well as family, probate and juvenile matters.

The vast majority of cases tried in California's 58 counties begin in each county's superior courts.

The claim is arguably made that decisions arrived at by superior court judges can exert more influence on an individual or a community than an elected legislator can.

Since superior court judges have the power to sentence criminals, settle contentious civil disputes and decide the legality of local ordinances, it is very important that Santa Clarita residents and those who do business in Santa Clarita pay careful attention to the Los Angeles Superior Court judicial candidates' platforms, experience, endorsements and judicial/prosecutorial records (where applicable) - but herein lies the problem. Where does one go to gather this information?

For the average voter, picking a judicial candidate isn't easy. Judges are non-partisan offices, so a voter can't just pick according to party affiliation.

Voters want to know how judges will rule on specific issues. There is inconsistent availability of information regarding judicial candidates and their qualifications.

Bar associations in some counties, like Los Angeles for example, conduct and publish crucial judicial candidate evaluations (www.lacba.org), while other county bar associations do not do this.

Some counties charge for inclusion of candidate position statements in the ballot pamphlet ( Los Angeles charges $83,000), and other counties do not charge. Those candidates who can afford the money will get one last chance to educate and influence voters on election day.

Judicial candidates who have access to funding have done one or more of the following: hired consultants, sent out slate mailers, and/or paid the $83,000 to have their campaign statement included in the ballot pamphlets that are used by registered voters.

Although California's judicial campaigns have yet to reach the multi-million dollar expense levels, some fear that this possibility is on the horizon.

Concerns over campaign fundraising have led to California's Chief Justice forming a task force to examine judicial elections.

Voter apathy and lack of civic education is a major problem in this race.

A preliminary study conducted by a task force set up by the Judicial Council of California states: "Voters need to be directed to useful sources of information on judicial candidates and educated as to what to consider when voting for candidates for judicial office. On the courts/judges side of the equation, judicial officers need to be encouraged to provide useful information to potential voters."

The study also highlights the need for improved civics education programs in our public school system.
"To compound the problem" according to the study, " the federal "No Child Left Behind Act" does not teach civics and instead focuses on testing for math, literacy and science. That affects the least empowered students the most. There are standards for civics education, but they are not enforced. Civics is imbedded, not highlighted."

Researchers explain how this situation stems from the fact that the California Department of Education is heavily influenced by the legislators, who in turn are heavily influenced by business leaders.

The study presents the theory that this may be one reason why education and testing in our state emphasize financial literacy - at the expense of civics education. Parents, educators, business and community leaders and others need to step up to the plate to promote civics education in our school system. Students, and as a result, young adults down the road remain clueless as to how our judicial system functions and their role in the process.

And with that said, here are the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley (www.dpsfv.com) June 2008 Primary Election Judicial Endorsements.

Note: The endorsements are the position taken by a super-majority of the 70 DPSFV executive board members. DPSFV represents 27 Democratic clubs in and around the San Fernando Valley. Among the criteria used to select who to endorse, the DPSFV board weighed heavily the following: experience level, personal integrity, effectiveness in respective working environments, and respect from peers and adversaries.

In one instance, Office #69, the Democratic Club of the SCV (www.scvdems.org) endorsed Serena Murillo over Harvey A. Silberman (the DPSFV choice) for a number of reasons including the fact that Murillo, a highly qualified, well-respected, bi-lingual Latina candidate would help the L.A. County Superior Court judicial staff better reflect the make-up of the constituents they serve.

The rest of the DPSFV endorsements include: Office 4 Ralph W. Dau, Office 69 Harvey A. Silberman (note: SCV Dems endorses Serena Murillo for this office), Office 72 Hilleri Grossman Merritt, Office 82 Cynthia Loo, Office 84 Lori-Ann C. Jones, Office 94 C. Edward Mack, Office 95 Patricia D. Nieto, Office 119 Jared D. Moses, Office 123 Kathleen Blanchard, Office 125 James N. Bianco, Office 154 Rocky L. Crabb.

The bottom line is this: it is hoped that these local endorsements serve to generate public discourse.

There are many differences between the candidates for each office. Voters will weigh their personal criteria to make the choice that is best from their point of reference.

If you agree or disagree with any of these endorsements, let your media outlets (including newspapers, television/Web TV and radio stations, blog sites etc.) know this. Write a letter to the editor at The Signal, or blog about this. Let the community know why you think your preferred candidate is the best choice for Judge in a specific office in the LA Superior Court system.

The Los Angeles County Bar Association's Web site is an excellent reference for information about the judicial elections in Los Angeles: www.lacba.org/showpage.cfm?pageid=9390.

Included in this Web site are links to the Bar Association's report of the 2008 Judicial Election Evaluations Committee - which evaluates candidates running for the contested judicial elections in Los Angeles County. In addition, here you will find candidate biographies, links to League of Women Voters Web site, and a links to influential newspaper endorsements. The Los Angeles Times link leads to an article which includes both editorial endorsements and an excellent overview of the judicial elections in Los Angeles County.

Cal Planakis is an independent civic journalist who lives in Santa Clarita. She is a member of the Democratic Alliance for Action. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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