"It’s like the Star Chamber,” quips Craig Candelore. “It’s all done in secret. And they don’t even have the authority to do it in the first place.”
That’s what this local family law attorney and founder of the Men’s Legal Center says about the San Diego County Bar Association’s process of ranking candidates for the local bench. Candelore and three other local attorneys — Harold Coleman Jr., Larry “Jake” Kincaid, and Bill Trask — made an unsuccessful bid to unseat incumbent judges in the June election.
The fab four were enthusiastically backed by Better Courts Now, a Chula Vista–based group that seeks to change the complexion of San Diego County courts. However, according to Candelore, neither the news media nor the powers that be — specifically, the San Diego County Bar Association — gave the challengers a fair shake in their bid to fill the four superior court seats that were up for grabs on June 8.
In the weeks leading up to the election, news stories — not only in San Diego but around the nation (e.g., in the Washington Post) — portrayed Candelore and the other upstarts as fervent, fulminating forces of faith-fueled fury. The genesis of the coverage was an Associated Press dispatch from San Diego–based Julie Watson, who wrote, “Vowing to be God’s ambassadors on the bench, the four…candidates are backed by pastors, gun enthusiasts, and opponents of abortion and same-sex marriages.”
Watson quoted Candelore as proclaiming, “We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values. Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary.”
But Craig Candelore says, “She never spoke with me personally. Apparently, she had already met with the [incumbent] judges. But I don’t remember saying the things she claims I said. She twisted my words. Am I a Christian? Yes. Do I go to church every week? Yes. But I don’t consider myself a Bible-thumper.” (Watson didn’t return calls for comment.)
Better Courts Now was the brainchild of Don Hamer, an evangelical minister who for many years held sway over a flock of East County fundamentalist faithful at Spring Valley’s Zion Christian Fellowship. Believing that conservative Christians have a ballot-box duty to counteract what he felt was rampant immorality and unfettered libertinism, the cleric forayed into politics, strongly supporting Proposition 8, the state ballot initiative whose passage in November 2008 resulted in a ban on gay marriage in California. However, as opponents of Proposition 8 moved to overturn the law, Hamer and others of like mind girded for the next battle, one that they’ve characterized as a fight to rid the bench of judicial activism.
Better Courts Now proclaims, “Good judges understand that independence of the courts does not mean independence from the voters. It’s as simple as ABC.” According to the Better Courts website, the operative terms are “Accountability,” “Boundaries,” and “Common Sense” — attributes that the challengers apparently believe many San Diego judges lack. Candelore, who ran under the leitmotif of “restoring people’s trust and confidence in our courts,” highlighted the “ABC” theme in his own campaign materials, which are nearly identical to those posted online at Better Courts Now. I asked him to elaborate. “Accountability,” he said, is about the process of electing judges, which, he contends, has devolved into nothing more than a pro forma rubber-stamping of incumbents, a presumption that sitting judges will, barring extraordinary circumstances, maintain their seats on the local bench. “Boundaries,” Candelore told me, means that judges will eschew judicial activism, leave lawmaking to the legislators, and respect the Constitutionally mandated separation of powers. As for “common sense,” he defined it as “practical wisdom” and “real-world experience.” “It means you’ve lived.”
Craig Candelore asserted that San Diego County’s judicial incumbents are, almost to a man (or woman), members of a small, even incestuous club comprising ex-prosecutors. He also lamented that, for most, the road to local jurisprudence has led from law school and the district attorney’s office, without a stop in the “real world.” He groused, “None of them have ever run a business.” He also noted that their substantive legal experience has been solely in criminal law, which he believes to be less relevant to a typical judicial caseload than his own family law background. In addition, he touted his military experience, writing, “The reasons why I am running for judge are very simple: in Iraq…I risked my life to bring…a good court system to the Iraqis.”
After the election, I spoke with Candelore. “We lost, but I thought it was a pretty good showing; 35 percent [36.1 percent in the final tally] is nothing to sneeze about.” Apparently, given similar levels of support for the other Better Courts Now candidates, San Diegans treated the four challengers as a bloc. (Harold Coleman Jr. received 41 percent; Larry “Jake” Kincaid, 37.5 percent; and Bill Trask, 35.5 percent.) Even if the outcome had been different, Candelore maintains that the San Diego County Bar Association shouldn’t be in the business of assessing judicial candidates. Moreover, he lambastes the group for its refusal to reveal just how it arrived at his lousy review — not to mention the substellar ones assigned his three amigos.
When I queried Patrick Hosey, president of the San Diego County Bar Association, he said, in effect, “Blame Jenny.” “Jenny,” it turns out, is lighthearted lawyer lingo for the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, a 27-member group formed by the State Bar of California in 1979. Unlike the state bar, which forces all California attorneys to join, the local organization is a voluntary society with no official power. However, according to head honcho Hosey, who characterizes the pithy pronouncements of fitness as a “public service,” the locals seek to emulate the state bar when it comes to evaluating judicial candidates, thus adopting a code of silence.
The San Diego County Bar Association lists the criteria as “integrity and character, experience, judgment, intellectual ability, temperament, diligence, decisiveness, professional reputation, or any other factor that might affect the candidate’s ability to serve as a judge.” Hosey told me that a 21-member group, the Judicial Evaluation Committee, comprising a “diverse cross section of the San Diego bar,” is assembled to gather information from sources who are granted anonymity. The 21 committee members are then subdivided into smaller teams of 5 or 6 evaluators, with one team assigned to each candidate.
Hosey sought to reassure me that the process is fair, suffused with “checks and balances.” The information, he claimed, is corroborated, the sources vetted; and, he stressed, once the ratings are announced, the aspiring gavel-wielders are invited to address the committee to air their concerns. But when I pressed Hosey for details, he deftly sidestepped the question by attempting to invoke a sort of attorney-client privilege. How had the bar association come to the conclusion that Candelore and the other three candidates backed by Better Courts Now were “lacking qualifications” (or unratable, in the case of Coleman)? Hosey’s response: “It’s confidential.”
(Alvin Gomez, chairman of the Judicial Evaluation Committee, did not return calls for comment.)