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It wasn’t just the missing comma and the capital “J” in Maria Rodriguez’s campaign brochure that sent her opponent, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Martinez, to court last month for an injunction. It was the total effect of the brochure. The grammatical “lapses” appeared under a photo of three black-robed figures: a judge and a commissioner with Rodriguez, a lawyer, in the middle. Rodriguez, however, was wearing what in truth was a black dress. The photo caption said the judge and the commissioner were standing “with the candidate they support for Judge Maria C. Vargas Rodriguez.” The disputed use of the word “judge” also showed up in the spotlight in an Alameda County runoff between two court commissioners seeking a seat on the bench. Following complaints by candidate David Krashna, his opponent, Mark Kliszewski, acknowledged sending a flyer that caused “misunderstanding.” It referred to Kliszewski’s decade as a commissioner by calling him “your superior court judge for the past 10 years.” Ambiguities and misrepresentations have marked judge elections for years, as have subtle references to party affiliation. While the transgressions pale compared with bare-knuckle politics outside the judicial arena, they’re not going away, says David Danielsen, president of the California Judges Association. And Election 2000 has brought a new foul cry to judicial races: In a San Diego race, and several in other states, the Christian Coalition has circulated questionnaires about the political beliefs of the candidates. Added to the perennial problems, they’ve prompted Danielsen to lobby for a mechanism statewide to inform voters, mid-campaign, about what judicial candidates can and cannot do. It’s not enough to refer complaints for possible post-election discipline by the State Bar or the state’s watchdog group, the Commission on Judicial Performance, Danielsen told attendees of the annual State Bar convention. Responses must be local if they are to have “timely political consequences,” he said. And although the rules are spelled out, the statewide enforcement bodies often don’t address violations until the election is past, creating a political incentive to bend them. Judicial canons prohibit misrepresenting one’s identity, trying to make the race partisan, or bringing disrepute on the bench by mudslinging. In the name of judicial independence, candidates are also not supposed to take public stands on issues pending before any court. The line on political commitments can be fuzzy. In a Sacramento County judicial race this year, candidate Donald Steed II joined his boss, District Attorney Janice Scully, in a press conference blasting a current ballot initiative. Steed’s opponent, litigator Trena Burger, accused him of violating the State Bar’s code of ethics. Steed says that as he interprets the code, he’s safe, because the proposition — mandating treatment for some convicted drug offenders — has a direct effect on court administration. In the San Diego controversy, personal injury lawyer William O’Connell reasons he was in the right when he filled out a questionnaire distributed by the county’s chapter of the Christian Coalition of California, in which he announced that he supports school vouchers and anti-abortion legislation and opposes gay marriage. As O’Connell reads it, the canons allow candidates to express themselves on topics not likely to come before them — an interpretation disputed by Danielsen and O’Connell’s opponent, Charles Ervin. In a separate race, Judge Charles Rogers refused to fill out the questionnaire in the primary, nevertheless beating an opponent whom he was told made his political views known. But, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune, it was difficult knowing that the answers are relayed to voters seeking a litmus test, and “it gives the candidate who does violate the rules an unfair advantage.” LAYING DOWN THE LAW California began publishing judicial canons in response to another organized effort by the political right, which in the 1970s began trying to unseat judges for not being tough enough on criminals. Among the races that caused an uproar was a challenge to a municipal court judge by a prosecutor who alleged that the judge so coddled criminals that he had never sent one to prison. Representatives of Pasadena’s Bar association, who quickly called newspaper and television reporters to explain that municipal court judges lacked the authority to send anyone to prison, were credited with saving the judge’s seat. In 1975, the California Supreme Court cited the American Bar Association’s conduct code in two judicial discipline cases — signaling that unofficial codes from professional groups could be decisive. That same year, the forerunner of the California Judges Association, a private and voluntary organization, put into effect a Code of Judicial Conduct. Voters amended the California Constitution in 1995 to require the supreme court to promulgate a code that would include rules for judicial campaigners, and the court adopted the CJA model. Two years later, the State Bar adopted a rule of professional conduct that requires a lawyer seeking a judgeship to follow the same rules as judges. It was also in the late 1970s that the Santa Clara County Bar Association set up a group with lawyer, judge and lay members to monitor judicial campaigns and comment publicly. Danielsen suggests that model could be “exported” to counties throughout California. Santa Clara’s Fair Judicial Election Practices Commission tells candidates at the outset that they and their campaign managers must sign a statement that they understand and will abide by the canons, which preclude misrepresentation as well as announcing political or social views that could be seen as an indication of future rulings. No candidate has ever refused, says Jack Komar, who as the county’s presiding judge is a member of the commission. The commissioners meet only when there’s a complaint, typically three or four times per election year. Depending on the seriousness, findings of impropriety may call for a private admonition or a full-blown press conference. “The public statements have a profound effect,” Komar says. He cites two instances in which deputy district attorneys trying to unseat incumbents were zapped for misleading brochures. Both challengers were defeated. Candidates don’t try to dispute the commission. “They seem to think they’ll just make it worse,” Komar observes. Not that Santa Clara’s efforts have turned campaigning into a game of croquet. Spending is heavy in the county’s two runoffs for empty judicial seats this year, and each race has one candidate complaining about an opponent’s ballot designation. But the commission has issued no public opinions and, in keeping with its own confidentiality rules, Komar declines to say if there have been any close calls. What the commission does that statewide government groups cannot is respond before the election is moot. Also, Komar points out, as a private group, the commission cannot be accused of violating free speech protections. “We’re not the government,” he notes. “We can say, whether or not a candidate is breaking the law, they are still, in our opinion, out of line.” In the meantime, other counties take assorted routes to try to keep judicial races judicious. In Fresno, judicial candidates and other politicians are asked by a Coalition for Clean Campaigns — which includes the League of Women Voters and the Farm Bureau — to promise to refrain from personal attacks and not to distort the facts. That hasn’t kept Deputy District Attorney Daniel Casas from accusing his opponent, Debra Kazanjian, of running her family law practice into the ground by overcharging clients — or Kazanjian, who denies overcharging, from ridiculing Casas’ red face in debates. And then there’s the option of an eleventh-hour dash to the courthouse. In the Los Angeles race, Martinez, the 19-year incumbent, is seeking an injunction against the brochures showing “Judge” Maria Rodriguez in a black dress, putting on hold everything except the Nov. 7 election date. The judge hearing the case refused to issue a TRO on the brochures after Rodriguez’ attorney argued prior restraint, and then referred Martinez to the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Fair Judicial Election Practices Committee — which doesn’t have the enhanced authority of affiliation with the bench — for guidance. “We went before the committee last night [Oct. 18],” says Martinez’ campaign manager, Mark Siegel. “They said they’d get back to us.”

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