Let’s face it: The election of Gary Kreep might’ve been the zenith of San Diego’s judicial races, in terms of pure bewilderment.
That race had everything – everything being two men with unfortunate names (Kreep narrowly beat Garland Peed), one of whom was a prominent “birther.”
This time around, San Diego will have to settle for a candidate who’s defended white supremacists pro bono and once wrote that a judge he was facing should be disqualified “by virtue of her permanent disability as a Negro racist;” and an incumbent with a drunk-driving conviction who was also admonished by a state commission for incorrectly putting a woman in custody for five days.
Those are two Superior Court candidates in five of the contested races – where an incumbent judge faces at least one challenger – for the June 3 election. Another 42 races for the bench are uncontested, meaning the sitting judge doesn’t have an opponent and will coast to another six-year term.
Judicial elections are generally right down there with community college trustees for some of the least-cared-about spots on the ballot. But judges, more than other elected positions, can wield extraordinary power individual residents’ lives.
There are currently 125 active Superior Court judges in San Diego County. Generally speaking, Superior Court judges are first appointed by the governor, but those judges can be challenged in the following election cycle.
The Contested Races
Office No. 9
Incumbent: Judge Ronald S. Prager
Challenger: Attorney/recycler Douglas Crawford
Office No. 19
Incumbent: Judge Michael J. Popkins
Challenger: U.S. Justice Department attorney Paul Ware
Office No. 20
Incumbent: Judge Lisa Schall
Challenger: Federal prosecutor Carla Keehn
Office No. 25
The incumbent, Judge Cynthia Bashant, was recently confirmed as a U.S. District judge, so this is now an open election.
Challengers: Attorney/court volunteer Ken Gosselin, attorney/fraud examiner Michele Hagan and Deputy Attorney General Brad A. Weinreb
Gov. Jerry Brown could technically fill Bashant’s now-open seat, a court official said, but that is unlikely because there are people running in the election. The court official said there are currently seven more open bench seats that have not been filled, likely because of funding issues.
Office No. 44
Incumbent: Judge Jacqueline M. Stern
Challenger: Attorney Joseph Adelizzi
There are 11 candidates in the five contested Superior Court races and of those, the San Diego County Bar Association rated three – Crawford, Gosselin and Hagan – as “Lacking Qualifications.”
Of those three, Crawford has received the most attention recently because of a legal statement he penned in 2011 arguing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a “militant, ‘black power’ organization” and that Judge Randa Trapp, who is black, should be disqualified from a particular case because she has a “racist bias and prejudice in favor of negroes and against whites.”
“Moreover, Crawford is well known in the legal community as an attorney that openly and vocally supports white supremacy causes by providing pro bono legal counsel to white supremacists,” Crawford wrote about himself, according to a copy of the legal statement.
“Plaintiff’s attorney contends that Judge Trapp will be unable to properly perceive the evidence and/or properly conduct the proceedings by virtue of her permanent disability as a Negro racist,” he wrote.
Crawford said recently that if he “could go back in time, I would never represented the client.” He said he does not share any white supremacist philosophies and was only doing his best to help his client at the time.
Crawford also has his own case pending in the State Bar Court – which hears attorney misconduct complaints – where he has been found culpable on one count of professional misconduct.
The misconduct, according to court records, refers to a threat Crawford allegedly made that he would have his client trigger a federal audit against their opponents if they didn’t start settlement talks.
He is challenging that ruling.
Crawford said he knows he’s not a traditional judicial candidate and that he “would never have a chance in any way, shape or form of ever being appointed to the bench,” which is why he decided to run.
He says his nickname is “Dirty Doug” because he prefers junkyards and fixing cars to working in courthouses.
Meanwhile, the Bar Association ranked three of the four incumbent judges as “Well Qualified” and the last, Stern, as “Qualified.”
Of those four, Schall – ranked as “Well Qualified” – is the only one who has been called out (and not in a good way) by the state Commission on Judicial Performance.
Schall was first appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian in the 1980s and says she is facing her first contested race.
According to court records, Schall received a private admonishment in 1995 related to her involvement in a juvenile dependency case.
Then in 1999, she was admonished for “an abuse of the contempt power” after incorrectly ordering a woman into custody for five days, according to a copy of the admonishment.
And about a decade later, Schall was again admonished by the commission after she was arrested and found guilty of drunk driving. According to a copy of that admonishment, Schall had a blood alcohol level of approximately 0.09 percent after she drove on the wrong side of an Escondido highway.
Schall said that it has been about seven years since her drunk-driving conviction and that she has “been a better judge out of that very bad choice that I made.”
Schall said she was going through a divorce at the time and her parents’ health was declining. She said that she served her probation and sometimes speaks at civic events about the dangers of drunk driving.
Schall said two of the other admonishments had to do with not following proper procedures.
Schall’s challenger is, unsurprisingly, using the drunk-driving conviction and admonishments as part of a platform.
“Ninety-nine percent of all judges get through their entire careers with nothing and that’s how it should be,” Keehn said. “This is the first election to hold Judge Schall accountable not just for her three judicial admonishments, but her criminal conviction.”
Elected vs. Appointed
By the time California became a state in 1850, much of the country had already moved toward the popular election of judges.
“The idea was to make government as inclusive and democratic as possible … in terms of white men … and the idea of electing judges fit right in with that idea,” said Reuel Schiller, professor of Law at UC Hastings.
But at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a radical change: People started to want partisan politics out of government, Schiller said.
So California developed a sort-of hybrid system where judges would generally be initially appointed by the governor with approval by a commission and then those judges would eventually face voters.
“In some ways Californians have tried to split the difference,” said Schiller.
The debate over whether Superior Court judges should be elected or appointed recurs nearly every election cycle.
Jon Williams, head of the San Diego County Bar Association, said candidates who run for a bench seat avoid the usual vetting that would occur if they were appointed.
“It’s been my observation that there is more interest these days in obtaining the position of judge through the election process,” Williams said. “Back in the day, you didn’t see as many people raising their hand to challenge a sitting judge.”