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Christian Right Targets San Diego Judges

America's culture wars over gay marriage and abortion rights are playing out in San Diego County's judicial elections. A conservative movement has sprung up on the internet. It endorses a slate of candidates who are challenging four incumbent San Diego judges in the June primary.

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Better Courts Now

Before the choir sang at Pastor Chris Clark's East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church on a Sunday morning, he told me about his frustration -- not with the economy, not with his congregation's personal problems -- but with the anonymity of San Diego's judicial elections.

"You have this whole list of judges and we know nothing about them," said Clark. "There is no information as to who they are, what decisions they have made. Is this a good judge or a bad judge? And more often than not, these judges are running unopposed. So what do you do with them?"

Clark hopes the answer lies with BetterCourtsNow.com. It's the brainchild of Pastor Don Hamer of Spring Valley's Zion Community Church. Before his sudden death in March, Hamer assembled a group of lawyers and law professors to vet the voting records of San Diego Superior Court judges running for re-election. The legal experts concluded that judges Robert Longstreth, Lantz Lewis, De Ann Salcido and Joel Wohlfeil were not following the law in the legal decisions they handed down and should be challenged.

"They were creating new law or they were ignoring evidence and making very irrational decisions," said Clark.

Clark couldn't offer any specific examples of how the four incumbents were deficient. Nor did the Better Courts Now website. But the website includes among its backers religious and conservative activists like Ron Prentice of the California Family Council. That group campaigned for Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in California and is being challenged in court.

"Courts have made numerous decrees in California and the nation that threaten our religious freedoms, our rights of conscience and preborn life," said Clark,

Better Courts Now's team of legal experts interviewed candidates who could challenge the four incumbent judges. They endorsed four local lawyers whose statements we obtained from the website.

There's Craig Candelore. "Many of our courts don't reflect our values anymore. The people have lost trust and confidence in our courts. We need to restore the trust and confidence in our courts," said Candelore.

Bill Trask. "This is a broken system I am challenging. I want to return the decision of who will sit in our county's courts to whom it belongs… to you."

Larry Kinkaid. "I believe American can be what it once was. You just need to put the right people in office. You the people need to vote and let your voice be heard."

And Harold Coleman whose statement was not recorded on Better Courts' website.

None of the judicial challengers would give KPBS an interview. Nor did the incumbent judges Longstreth, Lewis, Salcido and Wohlfeil. But they have a staunch advocate in District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

"In looking at these judges, they have a background and record that one should be proud of."

So why are the incumbents the target of this organized effort by Better Courts Now? Two of the four judges sit on family court.

"It is extremely difficult to keep and retain good judges in family court because of the stress of the job, the emotion that goes on," said Bill Howatt, a retired family court judge. He endorses the judicial electoral process.

"But it is not there for to challenge a judge for political or religious purposes. We have a separation of church and state in our constitution."

Howatt says Craig Candelore's candidacy is particularly problematic if he wins, because Candelore runs the Men's Legal Center.

"What will happen is if a lady is in a divorce case and the issues are child custody, child visitation, child support, those people who have professed to support father's rights are going to be challenged on a regular basis," said Howatt.

But Pastor Chris Clark says judges every day interpret the law based on their values.

"As a voter, I have a responsibility to elect judges that are not going to make decisions and look at the law in ways that I don't believe they should be looking at the law."

Editor's note: We mistakenly identified the Men's Legal Center as the Father's Rights Legal Center, and Harold Coleman as Harry Coleman. We regret the error, and have corrected the text.

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