Jeff Pelline: Are we a judicial monarchy?
In last week’s column, I focused on the upside of small-town life: The support shown for my nephew who broke his leg in a high school football game. Now for the downside: Small-town life can be a little claustrophobic.
After a long day that culminated with editing an article about our new judge, Candace Heidelberger, I headed to my neighborhood watering hole, the Stonehouse Restaurant, to wind down with a Manhattan before heading home.
And who did I run into at the bar? A big table of judges – Tom Anderson and Julie McManus, as well as Anderson’s former campaign manager, Chamber of Commerce people and a cadre of others. “It’s a small world after all. It’s a small, small world.”
We exchanged greetings and cracked a joke or two (at least I think they were joking), and I retreated to a quiet spot at the bar to reflect on the day and go straight home.
After all: How’d you like to wind up in court telling a judge that you weren’t drinking, when he witnessed you at the bar? I guess I’d hire a guy such as Stephen Munkelt and say, “Your honor, you were drinking more than I was!” Let’s call it the defense of “I’m rubber and you’re glue, and whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”
The Stonehouse encounter also got me thinking more seriously about the judicial system in our community. It’s challenging work, but at $171,648 per year plus benefits, good pay for a rural professional lifestyle. No wonder, then, that numerous folks throw their hat in the ring (a half dozen the last go-around) when an election was held for a judge.
Trouble is, not many elections are held for Superior Court judges, who are supposed to run every six years. Instead, they get appointed, because judges elect to retire (sort of) before their elected term expires. One reason: When you “max out” your retirement benefits, why stay on? Besides, you can become a “visiting judge” and “double dip” from time to time.
In our community, Ms. Heidelberger is the latest example of a judge who was appointed, not elected. She’s a Republican, and she was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A group known as the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, or “Jenny” Commission, ranks candidates after a rigorous process. The governor is not bound by the commission’s recommendations. Some people joked it would be Michael Moore!
Heidelberger, 53, a 30-year resident of Nevada City, is the third person named to the six-person bench since November 2005, rather than being elected by voters.
A judicial monarchy is not unique. Many Superior Court judges are appointed rather than elected. It’s the “circle of life” in courthouses throughout the state.
But the practice isn’t always well received. Some voters have expressed frustration to our newspaper about being left out of the democratic process with the frequency of appointments. They also worry about the appointments being politicized. It also gives rise to perceptions about the “good old boys (and girls) club.”
Judges are supposed to be impartial, but as we all know, their decisions can be political or perceived as such. Some judges are endorsed by political parties; in other cases, judges endorse each other. It’s legal, but is it ethical?
In our community, many people, including law enforcement, complain that our judges are too lenient. Some examples:
• A Nevada City man convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for attacking his ex-girlfriend with kitchen knives is serving a year in a residential treatment program for violating his probation for the seventh time. “We’re constantly dealing with these repeat offenders,” the Grass Valley Police told our newspaper. “This guy has been a thorn in our side for a long time.”
• For his fifth local conviction for drunken driving, a 47-year-old Nevada County man was sentenced to a treatment program and probation, incensing some law enforcement officers who say repeat DUI offenders should go to prison.
• A Grass Valley man accused of molesting his son – who retracted his guilty plea after a judge ordered him to register as a sex offender – pleaded guilty in front of another judge who did not require sex offender registration.
The judges counter they are not “weak-kneed idiots” – to quote one outspoken local judge, Robert Tamietti – but are just upholding the law and sentencing guidelines. In addition, they think that treatment programs offer more hope of changing behavior than prison. Tamietti was appointed less than a week before Gray Davis exited as governor in the 2003 recall election.
It’s difficult to balance the scales of justice. In our community, the pendulum once swung in the other direction, at least some people thought so.
Remember Michael Moore’s jaunt to Nevada County in July 2000 for his documentary “The Awful Truth”? “My sister Anne went to work as a public defender for Nevada County in northern California,” Moore writes on his Web site. “She wasn’t in the office long when she discovered that the poor, who were supposed to receive legal representation from the public defender’s office, were instead being railroaded – without a trial – directly to prison.”
The incident led to reform and catapulted some local legal careers.
The current crop of judges includes Anderson, the “post-Awful Truth” public defender from 2000-2007. Heidelberger also is a former public defender. The DA, Cliff Newell, is a former probation officer. To some, this kind of work experience all adds up to one thing: More empathy for the defendant than the victim.
“The rule of law and sentencing guidelines are meaningless here,” one resident said in a letter to The Union. “Cliff Newell will not take a viable case to trial and liberal, activist judges like Anderson and Tamietti will allow absurdly lenient plea bargains. Only the criminals receive consideration.”
Gadzooks! Still, the debate shows the importance of being able to elect our judges in a democratic process, rather than appointing them. It makes them accountable.
In Anderson’s case, he was elected. Whether somebody challenges Anderson when he’s up for election (or any other sitting judges) is doubtful, short of some breach of ethics. Most judges in rural communities run unopposed. One reason: What lawyer wants to lose and then wind up arguing a case to the newly elected judge who just ran against him? Refrain: “It’s a small world after all. It’s a small, small world.”
To some extent, the county’s criminal justice system is still reverberating from the Sam Strange murder case of 1993, which led to community charges of railroading the defendant, as well as charges of collusion between law enforcement, the DA’s office and the courts, according to local lawyers and law enforcement. Strange was found guilty and is in prison, but the criticism was biting.
Most trial court judges dread two things: Getting their rulings thrown out on appeal – and a recall election.
When it comes to choosing judges, the election process has major drawbacks, too. An election doesn’t always ensure the most qualified candidate gets the job.
In past years in Los Angeles, two well-regarded incumbent judges – one named Dzintra Janavs and the other Abraham Aponte Khan – lost to outsiders in elections. In both cases, the defeats were chalked up to their foreign-sounding names that were political liabilities, at least at the time. Janavs, an incumbent for 20 years, was reappointed. These have become “war stories” in the legal community, which worries about polling taking precedent over legal expertise.
Heidelberger seems like a well-qualified Superior Court judge: Years of experience in law, including a background as a public defender and in domestic violence cases. She raised her four children in Nevada County, and I think it’s a plus that she is a woman.
Most judges are white and male, raising serious concerns statewide about the diversity of the bench. This has drawn the attention of the “governator,” who has a chance to reshape the state court system with numerous judicial appointments in the next few years.
Heidelberger is an outsider of sorts, too, practicing largely in Placer County. Other candidates included Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Francis, Court Commissioner Scott Thomsen and lawyers Ray Shine and Michael Colantuono.
I still wish Heidelberger had run for the judicial post, just as Shine and Colantuono chose to run against Anderson last year. It’s a tough assignment, publicly exposing yourself to this community. As the League of Women’s Voters of California puts it: “Judges’ decisions have as great an impact on our lives as decisions made by the governor or legislator. Those who vote are exercising an important opportunity to maintain the balance between judicial independence and accountability.”
Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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