Attorney John-Paul Brennan and Judge Janene Beronio Yolo County Superior Court
Attorney John-Paul Brennan and Judge Janene Beronio Yolo County Superior Court ()

SACRAMENTO — The primary election ended a week ago, but hard feelings remain in Yolo County, where local jurists say the Alliance of California Judges went too far in its endorsement of a judicial candidate who ultimately lost.

Yolo County Superior Court Commissioner Janene Beronio, backed by all 10 judges on the local bench, won the race for the open seat handily, besting a field of three other candidates with 53.5 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a November runoff. One of those other candidates was John-Paul “John” Brennan, a West Sacramento defense attorney whose campaign consultant was Dave Gilliard, the husband of Alliance director Maryanne Gilliard, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge.

Through mid-May, Brennan’s campaign spent more than $143,000, much of it on glossy mailers and spots on slates targeting some of the county’s 100,000 registered voters. One of the mailers said Brennan was “endorsed by the 500 Judge Strong Alliance of California Judges.” Another trumpeted: “500 Superior Court Judges know who they support.”

Yolo judges say those claims are, at best, misleading and, at worst, deceptive.

“There were judges here who were on the Alliance email list, which apparently the Alliance considers to be their members,” said Judge David Rosenberg. But Yolo judges, he noted, were all backing Beronio, even if they were listed in the Alliance’s address book. The commissioner’s campaign sent voters a mailer featuring the entire bench, in robes, standing on the courthouse steps.

Dave Gilliard did not respond to a message left at his office Tuesday afternoon.

“You can’t say 500 judges endorse [Brennan] if you’re saying I’m one of those 500 judges or my colleagues are one of those 500,” said Yolo Judge Kathleen White, who, until recently, was signed up for Alliance emails. “That’s deceptive.”

The fact that Brennan’s campaign manager is related to an Alliance director, “even if she doesn’t have anything to do with [the endorsement], it just doesn’t look right,” White added.

The Alliance is governed by a board of approximately 15 internally appointed directors; many of them were instrumental in the organization’s formation six years ago. Its website says that, to become a member, judges can simply contact a director or email the organization with their names and court affiliations. The Alliance does not charge dues, although it accepts donations. It also promises “to maintain the confidentiality of its members” by not releasing its membership list.

Alliance director Daniel Goldstein, a San Diego County Superior Court judge, said Brennan approached his organization for an endorsement. Beronio did not.

“All we did is endorse a candidate,” Goldstein said. “We don’t control his ballot statements.”

Judge Gilliard recused herself from the directors’ endorsement vote on Brennan, Goldstein said. The decision to back Brennan was due in part, he said, to positive reviews from judges in Sacramento, where the candidate often appears in practice.

“I don’t know Dave Gilliard from Adam,” Goldstein said.

Yolo judges acknowledged that the Alliance, like other organizations, is free to support any candidate or issue it wants at election time. The political action committee of the rival California Judges Association, by comparison, spent more than $25,000 supporting incumbent judges in the June 3 primary.

But the Brennan endorsement, said Yolo Judge Timothy Fall, felt like a slap at a local court by the Alliance, which often touts the need for greater trial court independence.

“Their big thing was, ‘Local courts need us. We’re going to be there for you,’” said Fall, who attended an early Alliance gathering but later dropped out when, he said, some of the organization’s mailings and public comments grew too “strident” in tone.

Goldstein countered that trial courts are all part of the superior court of California and that judges, no matter their location, have an interest in who serves on the bench.

“We engage in endorsements all the time,” he said. “If someone comes to us and wants to be endorsed and they support limited court bureaucracy, transparency and accountability, then we consider them for endorsement.”

Contact the reporter at cmiller@alm.com.