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Most Superior Court judicial races are about as exciting as traffic school. Campaigning is considered undignified. Attacks between candidates are forbidden. There are no sparks, no debates, no surprises.
The real competition — for endorsements — is settled behind the scenes, long before voters see unfamiliar names on a ballot and pick candidates merely because they’re backed by the sheriff and district attorney.
But one matchup for this June’s primary has potential to be downright intriguing. It could be the first time in two decades a criminal defense attorney is elected to a bench that is dominated by former prosecutors.
And, making things even more unusual: The political maneuvering is well underway, with a strong potential for a curveball or two on the endorsement front.
In one corner is one of San Diego’s most prestigious and politically connected criminal defense attorneys, Tom Warwick. He is supported so far by 40 judges and, surprisingly, by retired Sheriff Bill Kolender. That’s quite unusual, since law enforcers tend to support prosecutors for judge.
In another corner is Deputy District Attorney Richard Monroy, the respected former head of the deputy district attorneys union who has held significant posts managing the gang and special operations units. He is backed so far by District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorneys union, the San Diego District Attorney Investigators Association, a peace officer association, plus 10 judges. Oh, and Kolender.
Kolender has endorsed both candidates. He first agreed to support Warwick, at the behest of a judge. And then he endorsed Monroy.
In a recent interview, Warwick said he was counting on the Kolender endorsement to help him overcome voter bias toward prosecutors. His resume is full of “best lawyer” awards and a long record of service on various local and state bar associations, judicial task forces, coalitions and associations dating back to the 1970s, including a current chairmanship of a group that educates the legislature on matters impacting the judiciary.
Among Warwick’s best-known clients are swindler J. David “Jerry” Dominelli, who served 10.5 years in prison for his role in bilking investors out of an estimated $80 million in the 1980s; and former Port Commissioner David Malcolm, who was sentenced in 2003 to 120 days in a work-furlough program for a felony conviction of violating the state’s conflict-of-interest law.
Warwick could pull off an upset against Monroy if he lands endorsements from law enforcement unions, and comments from the head of the powerful Deputy Sheriffs Association indicate that could happen.
Association president Ernie Carrillo acknowledged in a recent interview that law enforcement associations almost always support the law-and-order deputy district attorneys. But he indicated that unwritten rule could change, which would be a surprising shift.
“Warwick is one of the preeminent lawyers in town,” Carrillo said. “He’s one of the good guys. He’s a true gentleman. He’s there to do his job and he does it very well, but officers and deputies when they face him on the stand know he’s very thorough and very good but doesn’t try to belittle you and embarrass you. That’s not his style.”
And then Carrillo made another surprising, and telling, statement: “Our philosophy is, the bench should be diversified. Women, minorities, representatives of the community, and it should be diversified for the legal profession. The bench is 90 percent DAs. How many public defenders have been appointed recently?”
The last criminal defense attorney to be elected to the Superior Court bench was Judge Frederic Link in 1990, and he ran unopposed. Of the 127 judges now sitting on the bench, just nine were formerly criminal defense attorneys, and they were appointed by the governor. Several of those judges — including Link — had also been prosecutors.
The last time a criminal defense attorney ran for judge was 2002.
Judges are appointed when a seat becomes vacant before the six-year term is up; an election is held when a judge either leaves office at the end of his or her term, or seeks reelection and has a challenger. But an incumbent judge is rarely challenged, and an unopposed judge doesn’t have to go through the election process.
Deputy district attorneys are usually a shoe-in, and they almost always get the must-have endorsements from law enforcement and the politically powerful district attorney.
But Warwick seems to have the best chance of upsetting the apple cart. He has some powerful allies: Judge Link accompanied him to his interview with the Deputy Sheriffs Association. Judge Frank Brown contacted the San Diego Police Officers Association on Warwick’s behalf.
POA President Brian Marvel declined to discuss what his organization might do.
The seat that’s up for grabs only became available recently, when Judge Robert C. Coates, on the bench since 1982, decided not to seek another term. Coates recruited Warwick to run soon after Coates was disciplined in December by a state commission, which had rebuked him for sending personal letters on court letterhead.
And that’s when the politicking began.
Warwick and his friends on the bench quickly sought law enforcement support. Monroy did the same. They are still battling hard to win over the politically powerful deputy sheriffs union.
Carrillo said it won’t be an easy choice for his union. He praised Monroy, but also Warwick. Regardless, Carrillo said the union won’t give de-facto support to Monroy.
“To go strictly with the DAs,” Carrillo said, “the [Deputy Sheriffs Association] does not believe that should be an automatic.”
Please contact Kelly Thornton directly at email@example.com.