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A Contra Costa judicial candidate has stopped just short of calling her opponent a liar for a statement he made earlier this week at a debate. Court Commissioner Joel Golub and his opponent, Walnut Creek civil attorney Cheryl Mills, were asked during a Monday candidates’ forum whether they have ever been rated by the state Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. Both said they have not. But after the debate, when Mills and her supporters insisted that Golub had been rated seven years ago, Golub backtracked. In an interview late Wednesday he said he had misunderstood the question and acknowledged that he had in fact been rated. He said he did not know what rating he had received. During the forum, which was sponsored by the Contra Costa County Bar Association and moderated by Daniel Borenstein of The Contra Costa Times and Scott Graham of The Recorder, the two candidates were asked whether they’d ever applied to the governor for judicial appointment — and, if so, did they advance to the JNE Commission and what rating were they given? The question referred to the secretive process used to vet judicial appointees. The governor forwards names of prospective nominees to the commission, which solicits information from judges and attorneys, interviews the applicants, and then rates them from “exceptionally well qualified” to “not qualified.” The governor’s staff will occasionally tell a candidate his or her rating, but JNE does not unless the applicant is ranked “not qualified,” said Billie Sivanov, the commission’s director. She added that confidentiality rules barred JNE from disclosing Golub’s rating. At the debate, Mills answered the question first, saying she had applied for a judgeship but that her name had never been forwarded to JNE. Golub said he had applied for a judicial post but the application was “pending.” Asked a second time if he had been rated by JNE, he said he had not. That answer sparked outrage in the Mills camp. It’s widely known in the legal community that Golub was a strong contender for a judicial appointment in 1995 and was interviewed by JNE, she said. Gov. Pete Wilson ultimately appointed Bruce Mills — a county prosecutor who is married to Mills — to that post. On Wednesday, Golub said he misspoke at the debate. He had, in fact, applied for a judicial post in 1995 and advanced to the JNE Commission, which rated him. Golub said he was never told what that ranking was. He explained that he thought he was being asked if he had been rated recently. Golub said he has applied for a judicial appointment several times over the years, including in 1995. His most recent application is pending, but it has not been reviewed or rated by JNE, he said. When he answered in the negative, he was referring to the recent application, Golub said. He likened the debate exchange to the game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.” The TV show’s viewers are usually astounded that contestants carefully deliberate over easy questions, he said. “You say, ‘It’s so easy,’ but when the lights are on you” even the simplest question seems complicated, Golub said. The candidate said he fumbled the rating question, in part, because he thought about it too hard. Also, the candidate said, he has applied for judicial appointment numerous times over the years because he has been told that each application has a shelf life of only a few months. The 1995 JNE review “was so long ago, it just wasn’t in my mind,” he added. Mills was skeptical about her opponent’s explanation. “I was disappointed by his response,” Mills said, latter adding that “1995 is not ancient history.” But Golub said the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. “What is happening is that they are grasping at straws,” he said. “It there a political motive in this?” The controversy comes as both candidates are gearing up for a heated judicial race. Although a commissioner’s bench experience is usually a strong advantage in such races, for the second time Golub faces a formidable, politically connected, opponent. When the Walnut Creek commissioner ran for judge in 2000, William “Dan” O’Malley won the seat outright, snaring about 53 percent of the vote in a three-way primary. O’Malley is a veteran prosecutor who carried tremendous name recognition because his wife is a judge and his father is the county’s former district attorney. In this race, Mills has used her personal wealth to launch a cable television advertising campaign, which is rare in a judicial race. In the four-way primary, Mills held a 4 percent lead over Golub. Mills and Golub each say they have bought airtime on the cable airwaves since the primary. As in many judicial races, the candidates have shied away from taking positions on specific legal issues, saying they may have to rule on them as jurists. Golub, who has been in the legal profession for 29 years and has been a county commissioner for nine years, has touted his experience presiding over low-level criminal and civil cases. Since the newly elected judge will preside over criminal cases, he can hit the ground running, he said. Mills, a name partner at Mills & Larson, has said the Contra Costa bench desperately needs judges with broad civil experience. Mills has practiced law for 20 years and says she has tackled most types of civil cases, including complex litigation and Superfund cases.

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