BY THEIR MAILERS WE SHALL JUDGE THEM
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- A political mailer arrived the other day, advising me on how to vote in this week's primary election. It provoked thoughts on how we elect judges - and how the mercenaries of the election industry compete with more traditional media outlets.
As slate mailers go, it's not much different from other such works. It just happens to be the one that arrived most recently.
Our Exhibit 1 calls itself the Independent Voters League's Good Government Ballot Guide. It's cover shows a line of people, hands over hearts, the nearest holding an American flag. It is an image at once patriotic and somehow soothing, even reassuring. Inside are endorsements for ten judicial races, the District Attorney race, the County Supervisor race, and seven more ballot measures and initiatives.
The judicial endorsements provide a particularly interesting object for study. Most of us (myself included) generally walk into the voting booth blissfully ignorant of the judicial candidates and leave in the same condition. In many states including this one, open judicial offices are filled by public elections, the same way that mayors and city council members are elected. Mid-term vacancies can be filled by appointment of the Governor, but appointed judges have to face the electorate eventually, when their terms are up for renewal.
Somehow, people get elected to these positions and mete out prison sentences and damage awards. In spite of the magnitude of responsibility held by even the lowest ranking judges, the voters pay less attention to judicial races than practically any other contests. For this reason, the judicial races provide some of the most fertile soil for misrepresentation by political mailers. Let's take a look at this Good Government Ballot Guide as one example.
In order to evaluate the credibility of the political mailer endorsements, we have by comparison the findings of the County Bar Association, three daily newspapers and one newspaper devoted to legal affairs.
Some background here: In California, the courts which try major cases such as felonies or large damage claims are known as the Superior Courts. Those of us old enough to remember the television show Dragnet may remember the final scene of each program, where the defendant is tried "in the Superior Court of the State of California, in and for the County of Los Angeles."
Judicial candidates are evaluated by the County Bar Association, which has a committee (currently 45 members) which researches and makes recommendations on candidates' qualifications. The Bar Association rates each candidate as Well qualified, Qualified, or Not Qualified. The Bar Association report is available on line at lacba.org and is used by mainstream organizations in making their endorsements.
In nine contested Superior Court elections, the County Bar Association rated a total of twelve candidates as Well Qualified, sixteen as Qualified, and eight as Not Qualified. They were scattered among the different races. One race had three Well Qualified candidates among six total, whereas two races had not even one candidate rated as Well Qualified.
When we look at how daily newspapers handled judicial endorsements, we observe that they rarely stray from the straight and narrow, meaning candidates who have received the Well Qualified ranking. In only two cases, The Los Angeles Times, the Torrance Daily Breeze and the Long Beach Press Telegram all endorsed Richard Van Dusen and Stella Owens-Murrell, in spite of the fact that each had received only the Qualified ranking. These were races in which there was no candidate ranked as Well Qualified. In every other case, the newspaper's endorsed candidate is rated Well Qualified by the County Bar Association.
Another credible source for judicial ratings is the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a newspaper dedicated to legal issues which has been making judicial endorsements since 1978. In four open seat races, only candidates rated Well Qualified were endorsed.
So much for the background. Let's look at how the political slate mailer handled its endorsements. Our Good Government Ballot Guide has endorsements in ten judicial races, of which one (District 14) is uncontested. The slate mailer endorses the only candidate, incumbent judge William Pounders. None of the newspapers bothered to endorse in this "race" for obvious reasons.
What is amusing about this endorsement is that it is the only one which was not bought and paid for. In California, political mailers which take money for extending endorsements have to identify the paid endorsements. Way down at the bottom in the small print is the statement, "Appearance is paid for and authorized by each candidate and ballot measure which is designated by an [asterisk]."
Aside from the endorsement of Judge Pounders, every judicial endorsement in this political mailer includes that incriminating asterisk. Let's see what the remaining candidates got for their money.
In four out of the remaining nine races, the slate mailer makes endorsements that arguably are unjustified. In one, the slate mailer supports a candidate rated Not Qualified by the Bar Association. In three other races, the slate mailer supports a candidate rated Qualified in spite of the fact that there are one or more candidates rated Well Qualified who are running.
In one race, the slate mailer supports a candidate rated Well Qualified, but this is a race in which there are two other Well Qualified candidates, and where the newspapers found this candidate to be appreciably less desirable than the two others.
In four races, the slate mailer has endorsed candidates who are also endorsed by the newspapers.
What becomes obvious from looking at this slate mailer is that we are looking at a particularly venal part of the political process, an electoral exercise both deceptive and manipulative. Even the purported organization, the Independent Voters League is suspect. I have never heard of it. There is a League of Independent Voters, but its headquarters is in New York City, not in an office on Flower Street in Los Angeles.
Even the choice of language is suspect. Candidate Lori Jones has a picture ad on the back page which describes her as "Well qualified to be a judge." The Bar Association ranks her as Qualified, not Well Qualified. Candidate Pat Campbell's ad offers "A well qualified prosecutor," in spite of the fact that Campbell is rated Qualified by the Bar Association.
What makes these pathetic misrepresentations almost funny is that two candidates, Laura Priver and Judge Dan Oki also have picture ads which explicitly refer to being "Well Qualified by the LA County Bar Assn." Oki's ad is actually directly beneath Jones', adding to the amusement factor.
Of course very few voters bother to cross check such claims against the published ratings by the Bar Association or to cross check slate mailer endorsements against newspaper evaluations.
Some slate mailers actually do represent real organizations. If you receive political mailers from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party or the League of Conservation Voters, you can at least take them for what they are, that is, political documents which are legitimately communicated partisan views.
It pays to read the small print. All too often, buried down in type barely readable with a magnifying glass, you will find something like this: "Notice to voters: This document was prepared by the Independent Voters League, not an official political party organization."