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Conservatives Move To Unseat SD Superior Court Judges

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Judicial elections are often straight-forward, uncontested races. But in the June primary, a conservative group is challenging four incumbent San Diego Superior Court judges. We'll explore why this group thinks the judges are not following the law.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Judges on California's Superior Court stand for election every six years. Incumbent judges are sometimes challenged on the ballot, but most of the challengers are not well known and are unsuccessful. This year, in San Diego something different has happened. Four sitting Superior Court judges face a well-organized challenge from the right. The four challengers have been vetted and supported by conservative religious and secular organizations. This organized effort has prompted County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis to say that San Diego is now in a fight for the independence of the judiciary. Today, we’ll hear from one of the challengers. Craig Candelore is candidate for San Diego Superior Court, and founder of the Men's Legal Center. He is challenging San Diego Superior Court Judge Lantz Lewis. Craig Candelore, welcome to These Days.

CRAIG CANDELORE (Founder, Men’s Legal Center): Thank you for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’re also joined by retired San Diego judge William Howatt. Judge Howatt, good morning and welcome.

JUDGE WILLIAM HOWATT (Retired Superior Court Judge, County of San Diego): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, if I may, Mr. Candelore, a very basic question. Why have you decided to run for the Superior Court of San Diego?

CANDELORE: Well, I think I can bring a lot of qualifications to the bench. I have a very broad background not only in legal but also in the real world and I want to bring back the, what we say, the A-B-Cs, accountability, boundaries and common sense. And I think that that resonates with the voter.

CAVANAUGH: Were you asked to run by anyone?

CANDELORE: No.

CAVANAUGH: And when I said in the introduction that you were basically asked some questions to gain the support of Better Courts Now, is that functionally true?

CANDELORE: No.

CAVANAUGH: No?

CANDELORE: No, we were – I believe that all the candidates that are running, and we’re actually running more or less as a group here, it’s Harold Coleman, Larry Kincaid and Bill Trask. We feel that the Better Courts Now has the same philosophy and really endorses some of the same thinking and that’s why there was this commonality. And they were willing to endorse us. Again, we want to bring back accountability, boundaries and common sense to our court system.

CAVANAUGH: Now what are your qualifications to be Superior Court judge?

CANDELORE: That’s a good question. I have practiced family law for 25 years except for the time that I was mobilized for Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. And I also have a broad background in the military and, again, we believe that that brings practical wisdom to the bench. One of the problems we see in the bench is that 91% of the judges are prosecutors and we analogize that to having a construction company where all the employees are electrician. There’s a problem, there’s actually – if you look at the statistics, a real problem. Only 30% of the actual courtrooms are criminal. That means that when people are ascending the bench, 70% of the issues they’re going to see, they are actually not trained for. And so we want to bring back diversity to the bench and that’s part of our common sense. Let’s bring back diversity to the bench.

CAVANAUGH: The San Diego County Bar Association has found that you lack the qualifications to be a judge. How do you – that sounds pretty serious. How do you answer that?

CANDELORE: Well, I – Actually, it’s not serious. They’re – It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on, and let me tell you why. First of all, they were – one of the committee members was already fundraising for the judges before the evaluation, so it was already tainted. In fact, the four candidates were so appalled by it that we actually sent a letter to the directors of the County Bar saying, look, you have actual, if not perceived, bias. Do the honorable thing. Do the honorable thing and just say we decline to participate. But they, in fact, injected themselves into this campaign. They are a political animal and they’re beholden to the judge, the judges, and I think – just take the case of Judge Salcido. She was appointed to the bench in 2002 as qualified and now, because of course she filed a lawsuit against the court system, she is now found lacking in qualifications. The listeners can make their own decision. This is a political animal and they’ve lost the moral high ground.

CAVANAUGH: Now you – we talked about Better Courts Now just a minute ago and it is the organization, the umbrella organization, supporting your candidacy and the three other gentlemen who are running for Superior Court judge. That’s sort of a chicken and egg situation because you made it sound as if this organization existed before you came along but actually wasn’t it formed to support your candidacies?

CANDELORE: Absolutely not. This was a brain child of a gentleman named Don Hamer who felt that the court systems were broken. There was lack of visibility and accountability. In fact, the voters have total lack of visibility over this third part of our government. As you know, there’s the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. And what has happened is that 77% of the judges are appointed, not elected, and our Constitution calls for the election of judges every six years. What has happened is the appointment process, which is a stop gap process by the governor to basically fill a sleeve and until the persons stand election. Well, the exception has now become the norm. And because there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t run against incumbent judges, everybody gets a bye and we have no visibility or accountability. He felt the court system were broken and that we – we share the same thinking. There’s a lack of accountability, lack of boundaries and lack of common sense.

CAVANAUGH: Wasn’t there a sort of a moral and religious edge to it as well? Because he, before his recent death, was a pastor as well.

CANDELORE: Well, again, I – he’s not here to defend himself. I don’t know. I only know that they’ve endorsed us. We do believe that the court systems are broken. Again, as I say, 77% of the judges are appointed. Just the statistics speak for themselves. 91% are prosecutors, okay? And we have another problem is, in fact, if I may say, Bonnie Dumanis’ protégé, a Sharon Lewis Major (sic) is the appointment secretary for the governor. And the last six judges have been, no surprising, prosecutors. And there are many well qualified people out there that are never getting a chance to ascend to the bench because, again, there’s a lack of diversity. 91% of the judges are ex-prosecutors.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Craig Candelore. He is running for San Diego Superior Court, and I want to bring in retired San Diego Judge William Howatt into the conversation. Judge Howatt, what do you think about this organized effort to unseat four incumbent judges?

JUDGE HOWATT: Well, I have no problem with the idea that there is an electoral process. The interesting thing to me is that the substantial number of judicial officers are achieved by appointment and an appointment process that includes not only recommendation from the local community, the local Bar, but also the Committee on Judicial Nominations by the State Bar, and then you go through a process of vetting by the governor’s office and those folks as well. So there’s a great deal more critical examination of the candidate through that process than through an electoral process. Craig is absolutely right in the sense that the Constitution provides that every six years a judge should stand for election. That’s juxtaposed to the fact that the court of appeal stands for election by a retention election, not a ongoing advocate type election. The same with the Supreme Court of California, it’s also a retention election. It may well be that in the future that would be a more appropriate way to consider the qualifications of a judge, should they remain or not remain on the bench. And we have one election for an open seat this year, which is appropriate for an election where the judge who relinquished that position by retirement left it open for the electoral process, part of our Constitution.

CAVANAUGH: What do you find that’s special about this position, a Superior Court judge, that perhaps is not the best – having an election where all comers are equal is perhaps not the best idea and rather some sort of peer review, why should we look at those positions especially outside of, you know, like governor. Anybody can run for governor. Why would that be a different sort of a position?

JUDGE HOWATT: There are certain qualifications that are required of, at least in my view, a candidate for judicial office. Number one is a clear indication of impartiality and lack of bias, and I think that’s a critical issue that has to be brought to the fore. I think also a diversity in their training and experience. And, for example, I would wonder why Craig is seeking election as opposed to appointment. Certainly, if he has the qualifications to sit as a Superior Court judge, those qualifications would be recognized by the governor. And it is not an answer to say that, well, this political party in power is not going to appoint me. If you look at my career, I was appointed to the municipal court by Governor Brown. I was appointed to the Superior Court by Governor Deukmejian, which takes into consideration both the fact that – of a Democrat and a Republican appointing an individual, I believe, based on the merit that I had to offer to the court. Craig is also incorrect with regard to his statistics. Currently, there are 166 judicial positions requiring appointment or assignment in the San Diego Superior Court. 64% of those are criminal law positions. The question I think that needs to be answered by Craig is does he have qualifications to sit in a criminal law department, a juvenile law department, areas that are beyond the expertise that he espouses with his 25 years as a family law judge – or family law attorney. There’s no question that Craig has an adequate background as a family law attorney. He does well, and he has a particular qualification in that regard. But there is no guarantee that should he be elected, that he would ever sit in a family law court.

CAVANAUGH: Well…

JUDGE HOWATT: That’s up to the presiding judge to make those assignments.

CAVANAUGH: …let me have Mr. Candelore respond to some of the things that Judge Howatt has said. And then I would – I’d like to ask more about your candidate statement, if I may, but please respond.

CANDELORE: Well, first, an appointed judge is accountable to no one. And, ultimately, we are in a democracy and it’s we, the people. And we elect our executive, we elect our legislature, and it is absolutely no different with the judiciary. I think the voters can look at my background and make an intelligent decision whether I’m qualified. Now, again, I disagree with Judge Howatt’s statistics, having researched it extensively. The bottom line is, understand, there’s only 30%, as my statistics, and I’ve researched that, that are criminal courts. That means that when Judge Howatt himself ascended, was appointed, he was not qualified for 70% of the issues that came before him if he was assigned outside of the criminal court. And the listeners can understand that. His position is not well taken because what’s happened is we’re appointing these prosecutors and, again, 70% of the issues before them, they – they’re learning on the job training.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a question about your candidate’s statement, Mr. Candelore. It says many of our courts don’t reflect our values anymore. I wonder if you would be a little bit more specific. What values are you talking about?

CANDELORE: Well, again, that – the accountability to the people. Let the people decide what values they want on the bench. I think that’s very important. Look at the…

CAVANAUGH: Well, what values don’t our courts reflect anymore that you’re specifically talking about?

CANDELORE: Well, I – Again, I’m precluded by Canon 5 from really denigrating the court and I know Judge Howatt will support me on this. I’m not here to cast, you know, aspersions on the court system. But I think that the listeners, as a general, have seen where the people have said A and the courts have said B, they’ve overridden the will of the people. When the will of the people have spoken, they have spoken, and we should support the law, not make new law. And there should be no legislating from the bench.

CAVANAUGH: Do you mean issues such as gay marriage?

CANDELORE: I’m saying that whatever the law is, the judges should support the law irrespective of their personal opinion. And, again, civics 101, the legislature passes the law, the executive enforce the law, and the judges are supposed to uphold the law, whatever the law of the land is. It’s real simple. And, again, what happens is that the judges are – there’s no accountability and because there’s no accountability, they’re going off on their own. They’re not coloring within the lines that they have. There are three branches of government. Our founding fathers thought that was important to have a checks and balances, and that’s what we should stick to.

CAVANAUGH: You, Mr. Candelore, are known for your work as founder of the Men’s Legal Center. Why did you found the Men’s Legal Center? Why did you think it was needed?

CANDELORE: Well, I believe that children should have equal access to both parents and that’s very important. And I feel that men need more, let’s say, better representation to get equal access to their children. And so because children are important and their formative years are so important, it’s important that they have the best possible upbringing and that they have access to both parents, and I think all the studies show that. If they have both parents, they’re healthier, there’s less problem with truancy, drug addiction, teen pregnancies. We have healthier communities and, therefore, a healthier country.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think allegations of abuse are used too often by women in child custody cases?

CANDELORE: You’re getting me off on a tangent. I don’t – Remember, every case has its own facts, you know, and you have to evaluate the credibility of people. Again, I – it’s hard to answer that. You’re giving me a broad – broad statement. There are some that are meritorious and some that are not.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if coming from the idea that men need more help in our family courts these days, doesn’t that question, perhaps, your impartiality if, indeed, you are elected to sit on the family court?

CANDELORE: That’s a very good question. Let me just tell you that I actually worked for the Women’s Legal Center before founding the Men’s Legal Center, that I – we represent women. We have testimonials. You’ll see glowing testimonials on both my website—and the listeners can check it out, candeloreforjudge or menslegalcenter. All my support staff are women. We have an attorney on staff, Lisa Berg, who works there. We do a terrific job for our women clients and I think we – there’s no bias. But I do believe that men, especially in our court system, need better representation to get equal access to their children.

CAVANAUGH: Just a couple of quick questions about your candidacy, Mr. Candelore. Something I read, now you tell me whether or not what I read was not true, I read that there was an interview process you went through to get the backing of Better Courts Now. Is that not true?

CANDELORE: Well, I sought their endorsement. It just happened to be a meeting. You know, I was – Don Hamer talked to me. I will admit I’m conservative. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

JUDGE HOWATT: Maureen…

CANDELORE: I’ve – I’m a West Point graduate. I’ve served in the military honorably. I deployed for Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. I believe in protecting our country. If that’s – if I’m guilty, well, then I’m guilty. I’m conservative, okay?

CAVANAUGH: I’m just wondering during that interview process if you were asked about your position on gay marriage and abortion rights during that time?

CANDELORE: Absolutely not. I – I’ve heard people mention that. It is absolutely false. We just – there is a commonality in thinking, that the systems are broken. I think it’s, as I say, kind of a perfect storm. 70% of the judges are appointed, 91% are prosecutors. There is no diversity on the bench from the career background. I think it’s important to bring back accountability to our court system. We have no oversight. The people—we, the people—have no oversight over our judiciary and that is not what the founding fathers had in mind.

CAVANAUGH: And do you believe in the separation of church and state, Mr. Candelore?

CANDELORE: I think that that is often misquoted. I think that, you know, we follow the law. It is – That should – You know, what you’re really asking is personal opinions. Personal opinions have no business when you become a judge. There’s the law and you – boundaries, that’s the second tenet of ours. Accountability, boundaries and common sense. You stay within your lane. So that’s what I would do, is uphold the law.

CAVANAUGH: Judge Howatt, when a person puts themself forward to be a candidate for the Superior Court, do you think that their personal opinions matter?

JUDGE HOWATT: I think that you have to be very careful in dealing with Canon 5, and it’s very important that any candidate recognize that he cannot bring his political views into the process. By the same token, I think Craig has misunderstood the responsibilities of a trial judge in regard to whether or not there is accountability. In California, you have the Commission on Judicial Performance, which is separately funded and set up by the state legislature to review and to test the actions of various judges, everything from demeanor down to the action that they take in the courtroom. I was on the Commission of Ethics for the California Judges Association. I was also selected at one point to be a Special Master to review the credentials of a sitting California judge, so I know that there is accountability. It may not be the electoral accountability that Craig is seeking but there is definitely serious accountability for the actions of a judge. On top of that, you have the courts of appeal, which review the actions taken by a judge, whether or not they fit within the legal system. I think Craig also has a misunderstanding of his civics lessons in that, indeed, the legislature makes the law, the executive enforces the law and the courts interpret the law within the context of the Constitution. If Craig were elected, he would have to take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the State of California as well as the Constitution of the United States. And in so doing, he would have to accept all those rulings that he may personally have disagreement with and apply the law evenly and fairly. The fact is that what Craig is really saying to us is his experience, his belief that there is to be fifty-fifty percent custody of children is, in fact, the law. However, there is a great deal of discretion that is applied to the judge to determine whether or not the parents are emotionally and physically and psychologically fit to co-parent a child, and there can be disastrous results where 50-50 is sought by a man, for example, seeking to reduce child support obligations simply by the 50-50 demand. There’s a wonderful book, it’s called “Between Two Worlds,” that is about the childhood of one young lady who is being tossed back and forth between two families on a 50-50 basis. And there are situations in it works very well, there are situations in it when – where it doesn’t. You can’t just say that because the law says 50-50 it has to be 50-50 because the law provides for discretion.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get Craig Candelore to respond to some of the things that you’ve said, Judge Howatt.

CANDELORE: Well, first of all, he’s talking about accountability and there’s no transparency in a lot of these account – this accountability. I mean, just look at the Bar. Their evaluation was done in secret. They won’t reveal how it was done. We don’t even know if they didn’t apply an illegal criteria, and that’s interesting.

JUDGE HOWATT: Why didn’t you participate in it then? I mean, you could’ve brought together your qualifications…

CANDELORE: Yeah.

JUDGE HOWATT: …your interests and your availability.

CAVANAUGH: Mr. Candelore is responding now.

CANDELORE: Mr. Howatt, please give me the courtesy of allowing me to respond. First of all, there’s a lack of transparency in a lot of these things. It’s almost like a star chamber. And we actually – there are chairmans of some of their committees that was already fundraising for the sitting judges. Remember, Mr. Howatt here is actually basically a voice piece for the incumbent judges. That’s what he’s – what he’s here – and so…

JUDGE HOWATT: I am not and do not intend to be. That is a mischaracterization.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

CANDELORE: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: All right.

CANDELORE: He mentions the fact that I believe that there should be equal access to both parents and, remember, every case is different but it has been, I think, all the empirical studies that we have seen is that children do better if they have access to both par – assuming both parents are, you know, good parents. I mean, there’s always the exception, I mean, and we can – I know everybody knows of one example where there’s some crazy person. But both parents should have, you know, should help raise the children. Now, within that context, there’s always, you know, there’s exceptions.

CAVANAUGH: We’re up against the clock, gentlemen. I am very sorry. Let me ask you one last question. Mr. Candelore, because you’re bound by canons of ethics, I know that you can’t go deeply into your personal feelings but there are a number of people who are supporting you who are against gay marriage and who support a variety of very conservative causes. Are we to assume, therefore, that the people who are supporting you, that you share similar ideas with them?

CANDELORE: Well, again, I think you really need to ask them. Again, the commonality is accountability of our judicial system, boundaries, support the Constitution, stay within the bounds of the Constitution, no legislating from the bench, and common sense, which really is practical wisdom based on a broad background. And I think that I bring not only the legal training but also military training. Again, I’m a West Point graduate. I have a Bachelor of Science in engineering. I – I was – Just recently, I was – I served in Iraq. I was in charge of police development. All that gives me a broad experience to make better decisions on the bench. And I welcome the listeners’ support on June 8th.

CAVANAUGH: And, Judge Howatt, if you could give us a really brief last word.

JUDGE HOWATT: I think that the issue is going to ultimately become whether or not our community wants to have judicial elections much akin to the political elections that are ongoing, and I think that would be a tragedy for all of us. There are accountable ways for judges to be sanctioned and to be reviewed and we don’t need to have a situation in which we’re always questioning either ourselves as judges as to whether or not we’re biased in a particular area or have the community, knowing the facts, reasonably suspect that there is a bias in that. And as a matter of fact, that last criterion causes a judge to self-recuse if there is any reasonable basis on which to believe, on those facts, any person in the community would believe that judge to be biased.

CAVANAUGH: Gentlemen, I want to thank you both. Judge – San Diego Judge William Howatt, retired, thank you so much for speaking with us today. And Craig Candelore, candidate for San Diego Superior Court, and founder of the Men’s Legal Center, thank you so much for being here.

CANDELORE: Thank you, Maureen.

JUDGE HOWATT: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment online, please do, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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