Endorsements 2010: San Francisco candidates - Page 9

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And since the moderate and conservative forces will never be comfortable with a public defender moving up in the political world, Adachi's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Which is fine. He's doing well at his day job. We wish he'd stuck to it and not taken on a divisive, expensive, and ill-conceived crusade to cut health care benefits for city employees.

 

SAN FRANCISCO SUPERIOR COURT

SEAT 15

MICHAEL NAVA

To hear some of the brahmins of the local bench and bar tell it, the stakes in this election are immense — the independence of the judiciary hangs in the balance. If a sitting judge who is considered eminently qualified for the job and has committed no ethical or legal breaches can be challenged by an outsider who is seeking more diversity on the bench, it will open the floodgates to partisan hacks taking on good judges — and force judicial candidates to raise money from lawyers and special interests, thus undermining the credibility of the judiciary.

We are well aware of the problems of judicial elections around the country. In some states, big corporations that want to influence judges raise and spend vast sums on trial and appellate court races — and typically get their way. In Iowa, three judges who were willing to stand on principle and Constitutional law and declare same-sex marriage legal are facing what amounts to a well-funded recall effort. California is not immune — in more conservative counties, liberal judges face getting knocked off the bench by law-and-order types.

It's a serious issue. It's worth a series of hearings in the state Legislature, and it might be worth Constitutional change. Maybe trial-court elections should be eliminated. Maybe all judicial elections should have public campaign financing. But right now, it's an elected office — at least in theory.

In practice, the vast majority of the judicial slots in California are filled by appointment. Judges serve for four-year terms but tend to retire or step down in midterm, allowing the governor to fill the vacancy. Unless someone files specifically to challenge an incumbent, typically appointed judge, that race never even appears on the ballot.

The electoral process is messy and political, and raising money is unseemly for a judicial officer. But the appointment process is hardly pure, either — and governors in California have, over the past 30 years, appointed the vast majority of the judges from the ranks of big corporate law firms and district attorney's offices.

There are, of course, exceptions, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been better than his predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis. But overall, public interest lawyers, public defenders, and people with small community practices (and, of course, people who have no political strings to pull in Sacramento) have been frustrated. And it's no surprise that some have sought to run against incumbents.

That's what's happening here. Michael Nava, a gay Latino who has been working as a research attorney for California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, was going to run for a rare open seat this year, but the field quickly got crowded. So Nava challenged Richard Ulmer, a corporate lawyer appointed by Schwarzenegger who has been on the bench a little more than a year.

We will stipulate, as the lawyers say: Ulmer has done nothing wrong. From all accounts, he's a fine judge (and before taking the bench, he did some stellar pro bono work fighting for reforms in the juvenile detention system). So there are two questions here: Should Nava have even filed to run against Ulmer? And since he did, who is the better candidate?

It's important to understand this isn't a case of special interests and that big money wanting to oust a judge because of his politics or rulings. Nava isn't backed by any wealthy interest.

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