Two local judges face possible recall petition drive | TheUnion.com

Two local judges face possible recall petition drive

A coalition of county residents is gearing up to mount a recall petition against two Nevada County Superior Court judges – Julie McManus and Candace Heidelberger.

The proposed recall of McManus stems from her continued absence from the bench. She has been on medical leave since March 3. Heidelberger has been widely criticized over what many perceived as too-lenient sentencing of a child molester last week.

The recall is not targeting Presiding Judge Thomas Anderson, although his sentencing in a separate child molestation case last week was also the subject of similar criticism. State elections law bars the recall of an elected official within six months of the end of the official’s term; Anderson is up for re-election in 2012.

The supporters of the petition are not yet ready to go public, but said they planned to have the necessary signatures to file a notice of intention to circulate a recall petition by next week.

“Several people have said this quote to me, an Edmund Burke quote, that ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing,'” said a local attorney who is working with the recall coalition. “Evil people are getting lenient sentences and people in Nevada County have had enough.”

The attorney confirmed the group was working to gather 20 to 40 signatures of “proponents” who will begin the recall process.

The language of the notices asking for the recall of McManus and Heidelberger were provided to The Union Friday.

In McManus’ case, the grounds for the recall listed include her ongoing absence and the cost of providing an assigned judge to cover Family Court, as an estimated price tag of at least $125,000.

“McManus is widely considered to be an angry, unpredictable judge,” the notice reads. “She is notorious for pressuring parents … (She) routinely told parents that if their differences were not resolved in mediation, their children might commit suicide or be placed in foster care. The simple truth is that McManus cannot be allowed to return to the bench.”

McManus has been absent from family law court on medical leave since March 3; her seat in Family Court is now being filled by the state’s assigned judge program, which is staffed by retired judges. The state’s cost to fill a judge’s seat is $715.15 per day.

She was also on medical leave for at least three weeks in 2009, after being hospitalized for injuries she sustained in a 15-foot fall from the deck of her home.

McManus was appointed to the bench in December 2005 and ran unopposed for election in June 2008; her term expires in 2014.

Heidelberger came under fire from some in the community, including Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition Executive Director Niko Johnson, after she sentenced Robert DeMatteis to a year in jail and five years probation on Dec. 6. DeMatteis also must complete a treatment program and register as a sex offender. Other terms include no contact with his victim and no access to, or possession of, pornography.

DeMatteis, 63, of Nevada City, had pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse of a minor younger than 14 and one count of possession of child pornography. He originally faced eight counts of sexual abuse and two counts of child porn after the alleged victim, who is now 17, reported he had molested her between January 2007 and December 2009.

Prosecutor Katy Francis called the decision “unconscionable,” saying that giving the man probation instead of prison sends the wrong message to the community. Newell concurred, saying at the time, “The court had the opportunity to do the right thing, and the court chose to give a child molester probation.”

Heidelberger was appointed in November 2007 and ran unopposed for election in June 2010; her term expires in 2016.

The notice of intent to circulate a recall petition against her highlights the DeMatteis case and notes he could have been sentenced to six years in prison.

“Such incredibly lenient sentencing for pedophiles should not be tolerated in Nevada County,” the petition reads. “Nevada County citizens deserve better.”

Newell, however, said he strongly opposes any attempt to recall Heidelberger.

“I think it is absurd that somebody is doing a recall based on a single case,” he said. “I would be the first to admit I was frustrated with the sentencing of DeMatteis. But in no way do I advocate wasting the taxpayers’ money on a recall election, especially when they’re doing it from a limited knowledge base, by taking one case out of all the hundreds of cases that she handles.

“I think (Heidelberger) is a fine judge,” he said, adding, “There is always going to be a tension between the D.A.’s office and the courts on some sentencing issues. We work in an adversarial system – we have opposing opinions, frequently, but that in no way indicates disrespect for those we work with.”

Proponents can begin the recall of an elected official by serving, filing and publishing a Notice of Intention to circulate a recall petition. All of the required “proponents” must be registered voters in the electoral jurisdiction of the officer they seek to recall.

In the case of a judge, there must be 20 to 40 proponents, according to the attorney working with the recall effort.

After those signatures are gathered, a copy of the notice must be served on the judges, who then have seven days to file an answer. The proponents also have to file a copy at the county clerk recorders office, and then they must publish the notice in the newspaper.

Once a copy of the notice is filed, the elections office must approve the language, the attorney said. After the notice is certified, the group then begins gathering signatures on the petition. If a judge of a superior or municipal court is sought to be recalled, the number of valid signatures must be equal in number to at least 20 percent of the last vote for the office.

In this instance, McManus and Heidelberger both ran unopposed in their last elections and thus were not on the ballot. In November 2010, the only elected county-wide office was that of treasurer and the number of voters was about 38,000, the attorney said.

Twenty percent of that would require about 7,700 signatures, which must be gathered within 160 days from the date of certification.

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.