August 14, 2008
How to judge judges on judgment (election) day
They know whom they want for president, as well as for U.S. and state senators and representatives. It's a bit tougher to decide on the state and local propositions, but with a little study and the recommendations of trustworthy political leaders and organizations, the job gets done.
However, when it comes to the list of Superior Court judges elected by countywide vote there is sheer bafflement. With rare exceptions, the names are unknown and so are their records of service.
With a twinge of conscience or frustration, the Votersteins skip the page. At best, they take a stab at marking some of the races based on gut instincts, which have little to do with judicial performance and integrity.
What to do? The Journal turned to a few experts for advice. One was Judge Joseph Wapner, who served on the bench for 20 years before retiring and re-emerging as the television star of "The People's Court."
"Every election, I get calls from around 15 people asking my advice on how to vote in specific judicial races," said Wapner, whose son, Fred, is a current judge.
For people who don't have a judge for a buddy, Wapner suggests first to check the assessments of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, which rates judicial candidates as extremely well qualified, well qualified, qualified and not qualified on its Web site.
Wapner also recommends checking out the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, which coves the courts and legal profession.
Veteran political analyst Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, acknowledges that down-ballot races are usually a tough call.
For one, judicial races are officially nonpartisan and candidates cannot list political affiliations, thus eliminating one common guideline. However, determined voters can check the Los Angeles County Democratic or Republican parties for their partisan endorsements.
For another, candidates have only two or three words to designate their occupations on the ballot.
"It's an advantage if a candidate can put down 'prosecutor' or 'law professor' but 'attorney' is a negative," Welinsky said.
People generally don't like to admit it, but left with no other criteria, they will vote for candidates whose last names seem to put them into the voters' own ethnic group, be it Latino, Asian or Jewish.
There is also likely to be a gender bias at work, Welinsky said, particularly in races for County Central committees of the two major parties.
"If a husband and wife with the same last names both run for a spot, the woman will generally come in way ahead of the man," he said.
This phenomenon was particularly noticeable in 1992, "the year of the woman," when Californians elected both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to the U.S. Senate. Welinsky believes that 2008 may be another such year.
Hal Dash, president of Joe Cerrell and Associates and a longtime political consultant, agrees that ethnic identification can play a strong role in voters' choices, saying, "People tend to vote for their own."
He is managing the campaign of Hilleri Grossman Merrit and advises her and other Jewish candidates to put their Jewish connections on their Web sites and talk to The Jewish Journal.
Edward Sanders and Carmen Warschaw, two savvy political activists, also agree that ethnicity plays a role in the voting process, but neither would cast a ballot for a less-qualified candidate just because he/she is Jewish.
"I think most voters try to be fair, but personally, if I don't know anything about any of the candidates, I won't vote for either," Warschaw said.
What motivates voters is a matter of immediate concern to Tom Rubinson (photo) and Cynthia Loo, who are facing each other in the runoff for Superior Court Office 82. Rubinson is a criminal prosecutor in the district attorney's office and Jewish, and Loo is a Superior Court referee presiding over juvenile delinquency cases and Chinese American. On their respective Web sites, the two approach the question of their ethnic backgrounds differently. Rubinson makes no mention of Jewish affiliations or endorsements, telling The Journal that he considered his religion "too personal. I didn't feel it would be appropriate to mention it."
However, during the interview, he spoke at some length about celebrating his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem; his current family membership at Temple Israel of Hollywood, where he initiated a havurah group for parents with young children, and his support of the Guardians, who aid the Jewish Homes for the Aging.
By contrast, Loo listed seven Asian American organizations among her endorsements. She emphasized that ethnic identification shouldn't be a key reason to vote for a candidate but made note that Asian Americans are vastly underrepresented in the federal judiciary.
Loo seemed more concerned about having to list her professional title on the November ballot as "referee," although she performs the same functions as a judge.
"I am afraid that most people think of a referee as a guy who runs around in a striped shirt," she said.
Speaking to The Journal, Loo noted that she feels a general and personal relationship to the Jewish community.
"Both of our people put a high value on education and family," she said, adding, "I used to be married to a Jewish man. He is a really good guy and we're still close friends."
For information on the Los Angeles County Bar Association's evaluations, visit http://www.lacba.org/judicialevaluation.