Show Me The Money: Money and Partisan Politics in the Judiciary

Nancy L. Fineman
The Docket, Official Publication of the San Mateo County Bar Association
April/May 2008

June 6, 2006 was a rude wake up call for the California judiciary. Money and partisan politics dropped like a bomb on the state’s legal community! The future may produce more of these surprises.

Twenty-year veteran Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs was ousted from the bench in the June 6 primary by a Manhattan Beach bagel store owner who barely practiced law in the last decade.

Before the election, the race had generated attention because of speculation by some political consultants that Janavs was vulnerable because of her unusual name.

Janavs, a native of Latvia and a highly regarded jurist, told the Los Angeles Times: “Let me put it this way, my reaction is: Money can buy anything. My name probably didn’t help. But had she not spent a fortune on these slates, I don’t think my name alone would have helped.”

Lynn Diane Olson, 42, spent $120,000 on political mailers, or slates. Janavs, 69, reported about $42,000 in spending.

Olson, a Democrat, said she did not run because of her opponent’s name, but because she was Republican. “I targeted Janavs because of her political affiliation, time on the bench and what I hear about her from people in the legal community” about her reputation fro courtroom gruffness, Olsen said.

Rated Not-Qualified

Olson was rated “not qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association. Janavs was one of only two candidates rated “exceptionally well qualified” by the L.A.C.B.A.

Olson pumped nearly all her campaign money into slate mailers. If they have the money, candidates can buy space on the slate ads which purport to be official lists of endorsements for Democrats, Republicans and other organizations, but which in reality are mostly a money-making cottage industry. For example, Olson was on the Parents Ballot Guide, the Asian American Vote Guide and the Republican-oriented Citizens for Responsible Government, which called her “the Republican choice!”

The reaction of the legal community to Olson’s victory was one of surprise. Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, probably summed it up best when she was quoted as saying Janavs “has an odd name and she is thrown out by someone who is not even practicing law. It makes me very troubled by our whole judicial election process. This is the poster child for how really messed up things are.”

This incident of money and partisan politics in California and in other judicial campaigns across the nation prompted California Supreme Court Justice Ronald M. George in September to create the Commission for Impartial Courts, a statewide panel charged with recommending ways to ensure judicial impartiality and accountability and to study possible changes in the state’s judicial election laws.

“It is essential that we make every effort to avoid politicizing the judiciary so that public confidence in the quality, impartiality, and accountability of judges is protected and maintained,” George said, citing million-dollar campaigns funded by special interest groups for state Supreme Court seats in Wisconsin. Ohio, and Washington state.

Study Topics

Study topics will include the financing and timing of elections and campaign ethics in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling loosening restrictions on judges’ public comments.

George appointed an 18-member Commission Steering Committee chaired by State Supreme Court Associate Justice Ming Chin. The other members include justices and judges, court executive officers, government and business official and members of the public.

The Steering Committee will oversee and coordinate the work of four task forces and present is overall recommendations over the next two year to the Judicial Council of California, the policy-making body of the California courts. The formation of the Commission follows last year’s statewide Summit of Judicial Leaders sponsored by the Judicial Council, the largest court system in the nation, in the wake of threats against the independence of state judiciaries and judicial election controversies.

UPDATE: San Mateo County will be represented on the commission by John Fitton, executive officer of the San Mateo County Superior Court, who was named to the Task Force on Public Information and Education, and Burlingame attorney Joseph W. Cotchett, who was named to the Steering Committee by Chief Justice George.

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