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On Tuesday, Contra Costa County voters will decide a judicial race that is too close to call. And in Alameda County, a court commissioner running for judge is expected to sail into office. In Contra Costa, Walnut Creek court commissioner Joel Golub and civil attorney Cheryl Mills are vying for the post vacated by retiring civil jurist Walter Rogers. Although a commissioner’s bench experience is usually a strong advantage in such races, Mills got roughly 4 percent more votes than Golub in the March primary, setting the stage for a hard-fought runoff next week. Golub believes his nine years’ experience on the bench and 29 years practicing law make him the best qualified for the job. Mills says her civil litigation background makes her the best choice, and she says that because Gov. Gray Davis has filled most court vacancies with prosecutors, it’s time for a change. Mills has made her mark on the campaign by raising, as of Sept. 30, about $187,000, considered a large amount for a judicial race, and using some of the funds to buy commercial air time on local cable television channels, which is virtually unheard of in judicial elections. Some believe the spots helped give her an edge in the primary. Golub has raised about $95,000 in the same period and has also bought some TV time. Golub, who has been yearning to be a judge for years, has hit a few road bumps during the campaign. He was unsuccessfully sued by a Mills supporter over a campaign statement and last week recanted his assertion during a debate that he had never been rated by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. The commissioner has worked in the trenches of the Walnut Creek courthouse for nine years, presiding over low-level traffic and civil cases such as landlord-tenant disputes. Golub, 53, says he helped spearhead a successful small claims mediation program and a diversion program for juveniles at the Walnut Creek courthouse. “I have found that if we give [juvenile offenders] a chance to succeed in a diversion program, they usually do,” Golub said. The program is for defendants with first-time drug and alcohol offenses. Golub says he will be able to hit the ground running. The new judge will be assigned to do criminal work in Richmond, and while Golub acknowledges that he will have a lot to learn in such an assignment, he points out that Mills has virtually no criminal experience. Two attorneys who have appeared before Golub praised the commissioner. “It’s time to elevate him to be a judge,” said Todd Schultz, an attorney with Lafayette’s Kirby & Schultz, who specializes in unlawful detainer cases. “He’s a no-nonsense judge. He always lets people have their say.” Walnut Creek attorney R. Ann Fallon says that Golub helped resolve a complicated stalking case before it went to trial. “He was candid and even-handed,” she said. The commissioner has made no secret of his desire to rise in the judicial ranks. Golub says he has applied for an appointment during the administrations of both Pete Wilson and Gray Davis. This is his second judicial campaign — he lost a three-way race in 2000 to prosecutor William “Dan” O’Malley, a politically connected attorney whose father is the former Contra Costa district attorney and whose wife is a judge. This time, Golub says, the time is right. Golub has the blessing of influential democrats such as Congressman George Miller, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, and state lawmaker Sen. Tom Torlakson. Many Alameda and Contra Costa County judges also support Golub. Contra Costa Judges Terence Bruiniers, Judy Craddick, Merle Eaton and Alameda County Judges Dan Grimmer and David Krashna are in Golub’s camp. Golub has also invested in television commercials to boost his chances. Although such ads are rare for judicial races, some observers believe that Mills’ TV spots during the primary made the political newcomer the top vote getter. “My opponent did TV,” Golub explained. “It seemed to be a good way to get experience out to the voters.” The bottom line, Golub says, is that he has bench experience and Mills doesn’t. “I feel that I have a lot to offer,” Golub said, “nine years on the bench and 29 years practicing law.” He added that he has taught at several local law schools. Golub has taken a bit of heat during his campaign. Walnut Creek attorney Blackie Burak, a Mills supporter, unsuccessfully sued Golub for using a campaign statement that claimed he has presided over “more than 2,000 civil and criminal trials.” Burak argued that the claim would make voters believe that Golub had tried felonies. Recently, Golub said during a candidates’ debate that he had not been rated by the JNE Commission when he applied for a judicial appointment in 1995. Mills’ husband, Walnut Creek Judge Bruce Mills, was eventually appointed to that post. A few days later Golub recanted, saying that he misunderstood the question. He now says he was interviewed by JNE, but the commission didn’t tell him his rating. Golub would not say whether he would run again if he loses next week. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “I have been working hard to be elected to this post.” After running a successful firm, Mills & Larson in Walnut Creek, and practicing civil law for 20 years, Cheryl Mills says she is ready for judge’s robes. “Within the legal community I have a good name and a good reputation,” the 49-year-old said. Mills, whose client list includes Kelly-Moore Paints, said she has done a range of civil work including complex litigation, superfund work, and malpractice. Although Mills has little criminal experience, she says she can bring herself up to speed quickly. She also says she has insight because she has “lived” through the cases that her husband, now Judge Bruce Mills in Contra Costa, tried when he was a deputy DA. “Eventually [judges] end up doing unlimited jurisdiction [civil cases],” Mills said. “That’s what I do.” And the criminal experience her opponent says he has is with “low level” cases, she says, adding, “He hasn’t done a lot of what he would do in criminal court.” Two attorneys who have opposed Mills in court say she is a seasoned attorney. “Cheryl has always been a tough but responsible litigator,” said John Winer, an Oakland plaintiffs lawyer who has opposed Mills several times in cases that involved doctors and psychologists who are sexually involved with patients. Unlike some defense attorneys, Mills doesn’t do discovery merely to intimidate the plaintiff or to boost her fees, he said. San Jose plaintiffs attorney Allen Fleishman said she vigorously defends her clients but will make gestures of goodwill toward the other side. Once, he said, she told a family Fleishman represented that she was sorry for their loss and suffering. She was “both extremely professional and congenial,” Fleishman said. Although Mills is a political newcomer, she isn’t lacking political juice. In addition to support from her husband, she has the support of Contra Costa Judge Lois Haight — who is married to John Herrington, the former chair of the state GOP — as well as Judges John Allen, Barbara Zuniga, Harlan Grossman, John Kennedy, Joni Hiramoto, Thomas Maddock, and Mary Ann and William “Dan” O’Malley. Some speculate that Mills’ commercials on local cable stations helped put her in the lead in the four-way primary, which included Deputy DA Stacey Grassini and real estate lawyer Malcolm Sher. Mills, however, downplays the ads. “In my opinion they had no impact,” she said, noting that the TV audience that she reached was small. “People do not see it.” However, after Golub bought some spots, Mills bought 138 more spots, which aired between Oct 7 and Oct. 28, the candidate said. She bought 73 additional spots that will air from Oct. 28 through Monday. Golub says he doesn’t know how much air time he has bought. Although she has spent freely on the race, Mills resents gossip that she is “buying” her seat with her parents’ wealth. Mills’ father, Bob Dunphy, started a company that made Happy’s Potato Chips in the Midwest, she said. Although Frito Lay offered to buy the business, she said, her father sold it to a small regional competitor, Old Dutch Potato Chips, several years ago. Although selling the business allowed her father to retire when he was 57, she said her parents aren’t rich. Other than a $100 contribution, Mills’ parents have not paid for her campaign, she said. Her campaign has been financed with her own money. The campaign “is my undertaking,” she said. “I have no potato chip money.” The real issue is that the Contra Costa County courts are in need of a veteran civil attorney, she says. “I would go head-to-head with my breadth of experience in civil law,” Mills said. In Alameda County, Oakland Court Commissioner Trina Thompson Stanley is the only candidate who is actively campaigning for the spot vacated by retiring Judge Judith Ford. Her rival, former State Bar Court Presiding Judge Lise Pearlman, dropped out of the race, but her name is still on the ballot.

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