Opinion Columns & Blogs

May 25, 2010

It's tough to judge candidates for a single seat on the bench

A reader named Robert called the other day to talk about how difficult it is for the average citizen, even a well-informed one, to know how to evaluate candidates for judge.

He called, of course, because here in Stanislaus County we have six candidates from which to choose to fill a single seat on the bench. He was looking for ideas on how to compare them. I wasn't terribly helpful.

For most of us, our exposure to attorneys and courtrooms is limited to jury duty. There's a chance we've seen an attorney in action who is or becomes a candidate for judge. Beyond that, unless we're lawyers or have reason to spend a lot of time with lawyers, we probably don't know much about the people running for judge. We're limited to what we learn from their ballot statements, their comments at public forums, and in media interviews and their campaign mailers.

We have little way of knowing how well they know the law. And we can't evaluate their temperament -- how well they would handle the stress of managing a busy courtroom with opposing legal teams in various levels of battle.

I've grown to appreciate the value of having judges appointed by the governor, which is the way the majority of the almost 2,000 Superior Court judges reach the county benches in California. The appointment process involves a thorough vetting that simply doesn't happen in a typical election campaign season.

In the appointment process, attorneys and others familiar with the applicants are allowed to provide confidential comments on things such as temperament and smarts. While I suspect there might be occasional blackballing of a qualified applicant, this does help weed out someone who doesn't have the respect of the legal community.

During an election campaign, most attorneys are not going to challenge openly the intellect and abilities of a judge candidate, in part because they might someday end up in a courtroom presided over by that person.

Obviously, all six candidates in this race meet the minimum qualifications to be a judge -- being a member of the State Bar and having been in practice for at least 10 years.

Beyond that, they're a mixed bag.

I attended one of the handful of forums for judge and learned a little more, although not enough for me to confirm my choice. Their public speaking abilities varied. And their community service varied, from darn little to quite impressive.

Shawn Bessey is the only prosecutor in the field, so I'm not surprised he has the endorsement of a variety of police officers associations and many of his colleagues in the district attorney's office. Nancy Williamsen is a Superior Court commissioner, chosen by the judges for this somewhat subordinate role, and she has the endorsement of several other judges, current and retired. Again, not surprising but perhaps notable.

One candidate is not seeking endorsements. One is campaigning as being "tough on crime," although his experience is primarily on the civil side.

I appreciate the fact that at least one candidate pointed out that judges don't simply handle criminal cases. They never are sure whether they'll be assigned to juvenile court, probate, family law or the criminal courts. It underscores the fact that we need judges who capably can handle any of these areas.

We (the editorial board of The Bee; see names below) did not interview the six judicial candidates and we're not making a recommendation in this race -- partly a matter of time but also because it is hard for us, as it is for the average citizen, to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.

With six candidates in the field, it's unlikely anyone will get the required majority vote (50 percent plus one of the total votes cast in the race) in June. That means there will be a runoff in November between the top two vote-getters.

That should give all of us more opportunity to evaluate the choices.

If June is around the corner, then November can't be far behind. Candidates already are surfacing for the fall election, when seven of the county's nine cities will select council members and there are three seats up on the Yosemite Community College District board of trustees. Once again, The Bee is helping to sponsor a free workshop to help people learn what's involved in being a candidate for elective office. The session is scheduled July 10 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Salida branch of the Stanislaus County Library. The speakers will include veterans of many local campaigns and an accountant who specializes in campaign finance reporting requirements. Advance registration is strongly requested so sufficient materials will be available. To sign up, contact the Modesto Chamber of Commerce at 577-5757 or chamberassistant@modchamber.org. This workshop also is open to those who might be considering a run for office in 2011 and beyond.

Monday (as in tomorrow) is the deadline to register to vote in the June 8 primary. You can download a form from the secretary of state's Web site, www.sos.ca.gov, or get one at the library or election offices.

Sly is editor of The Bee's opinions pages. Contact her at 578-2317 or jsly@modbee.com.

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