Incumbent Judges Facing Organized Challenge
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April 30, 2010 – When you go through your ballot, chances are you may not vote in some races where you are unfamiliar with the office or the candidates, such as Superior Court Judges. KPBS reporter Amita Sharma explains why this June might be different.
Related story: Incumbent Judges Facing Organized Challenge
GLORIA PENNER (Host): When you go through your ballot in June, chances are you may not vote in some races where you’re unfamiliar with the office or the candidates, such as superior court judges. Year after election year, incumbent judges return to office after low-key campaigns. Often they aren’t challenged at all. This June will be different as KPBS reporter Amita Sharma will explain. Amita, things might be different. What makes this June election different from years past for superior court judge? AMITA SHARMA (KPBS News): Well for one thing, it’s an actual contest. Four of the incumbents have challengers. Now, it’s the conservative Christian effort behind those challengers that makes this race interesting or troubling, depending on your perspective. PENNER: So who’s being challenged? Which of the judges? SHARMA: Judges Robert Longstreth, Lantz Lewis, Joel Wohlfeil, and DeAnn Salcido. PENNER: What is it that sort of brings them, why them? SHARMA: That’s a very good question. The effort behind these candidates is sponsored by a website called bettercourtsnow.com, and it is the creation of pastor Don Hamer of the Zion Community Church. Now Don Hamer died suddenly last month, but he was very frustrated with what he saw as legislation from the bench. So what he did was he assembled a group of legal experts who sort of evaluated the decisions of all of the sitting judges who were up for re-election. And based on that evaluation, they decided that these four incumbents should be challenged. PENNER: Now, you said that Hamer died. SHARMA: Hamer died. PENNER: So who’s leading and organizing it now? SHARMA: Well if you look at the website, there are a number of Christian conservative groups, like Eagle Forum, the California Family Council, the Ruth Institute. All of which, I should point out, oppose gay marriage, they were very active in the effort to pass Proposition 8, and they oppose abortion rights. Now, what these people did was they – that same team of legal experts that they brought together – they went through a list of potential candidates who could challenge these incumbents. And they were asked a variety of questions, including their positions on abortion rights and gay marriage. And from that field, these four were selected: Craig Candelore, Bob Trask, Larry Kincaid, and Harold Coleman. And they are all local lawyers. PENNER: So they’re being cited because they legislate from the bench. SHARMA: Allegedly. PENNER: Allegedly. Thank you. Allegedly legislate from the bench. So does this mean that they have a point of view that is offensive to those people who are organizing the challenge? SHARMA: You know, that is really hard to assess and here’s why. Two of the sitting judges sit on Family Court. I believe the others have served on Family Court. Now, Family Court is a very high stakes, highly emotionally charged atmosphere. The people who are supporting bettercourtsnow.com who support these candidates say that these folks ignore – these judges who are being challenged – ignored evidence, they legislated from the bench, they didn’t follow the law, but they do not offer any specific examples of where these judges erred. So it’s hard to tell. PENNER: But how might a judge, let’s say with a religious or political agenda, render unbiased decisions in an environment say like Family Court? SHARMA: It is extremely tough because one of the candidates, Craig Candelore, has a Fathers Rights legal center. If he's sitting on Family Court and there is a woman – and there will be women every single day who come through that courthouse – and they’re asking for custody, full custody of their children because they believe the father of their children is unfit and they have Craig Candelore as a judge, Craig Candelore will be challenged. The other issue is you will have gay couples, lesbian couples who come in who are splitting up, who are also fighting each other, battling it out for custody of children. What is a judge who stands for traditional families going to do?