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It’s an unwritten rule in the legal community: Don’t challenge an incumbent Superior Court judge who is up for reelection.
But that code of conduct is out the window with the June primary fast approaching. Five sitting judges — an unprecedented number — are facing opponents in this election cycle, and the courthouse is abuzz over a conservative San Diego group known as bettercourtsnow.com that has fielded a slate of candidates.
The website features Christian pastors, politicians, business owners, and a former committee chairman for the “Yes on 8” same-sex marriage ban initiative, among others. In videos posted to the site, speakers appeal for voter support for its group of candidates.
The group has yet to announce those candidates.
However, the deadline for entering the races has passed. It’s likely that four of the five declared candidates make up the group’s slate unless they plan to launch a write-in campaign. That would require thousands of signatures.
Two of the candidates mentioned bettercourtsnow.com in brief interviews but downplayed their involvement.
“Bettercourtsnow looks like someone I think I’m going to try and get the endorsement of,” said candidate Larry “Jake” Kincaid.
Many of the speakers on the website’s videos say the country needs “solid men and women with high morals, who will not legislate from the bench.”
“I have full confidence that the slate of judicial candidates … will deserve the vote of all San Diegans who highly value a conservative court and the issues of life and traditional family,” said Don Hamer, pastor of Zion Christian Fellowship and CEO of Kuyper Preparatory Schools in San Diego, in a video on the site. “These candidates will be released soon.”
The challengers who have filed declarations of intent to run:
- Craig A. Candelore, founder of the Men’s Legal Center, who is running against El Cajon judge J. Lantz Lewis.
- Harold Coleman Jr., who is taking on Deann M. Salcido, a family court judge in El Cajon.
- Bill Trask, who is trying to unseat Robert C. Longstreth, a family court judge downtown.
- Kincaid, who is vying for the seat of Joel R. Wohlfeil, an El Cajon family court judge.
- Brett D. Maxfield, who is challenging Vista judge Harry J. Powazek. Lawyers said Maxfield had appeared before Powazek as an attorney and was unhappy with rulings the judge made and that may have been a motivating factor.
It’s unclear who’s behind the site. Domain owners purchased a private registration to conceal their identity; the address listed on the website is a UPS store in Chula Vista. The group does not appear to be registered as a political action committee with the state.
Numerous people who have posted videos in support of the site did not return calls seeking comment; two who did said Hamer asked them to participate. Hamer did not respond to interview requests. Judicial candidates who granted interviews mentioned the website but would not acknowledge a direct relationship.
Website supporter Brian Jones, Santee’s vice mayor and a state assembly candidate, said at least four of the five challengers are on the bettercourtsnow.com group’s slate of candidates to be announced soon. He said he made a video for the website as an endorsement of the group’s ideals.
“As a conservative, I’m greatly concerned about the condition of our courts nationwide and this is one step we can take locally to begin to turn things around,” Jones said.
Website founders have targeted certain judges because of decisions they’ve made on the bench, Jones said.
“They’ve specifically identified judges that have shown a track record of not bringing down their decisions according to the U.S. Constitution and legislating from the bench,” Jones said, “or bringing down decisions that as conservatives we disagree with for moral or fiscal reasons.”
Ron Prentice, who was chairman of the ad hoc executive committee for the “Yes on Proposition 8” campaign, said in his website video that the group will help educate conservative voters so they can remove activist judges from the bench.
“Placing the Proposition 8 initiative on the ballot and ultimately into the California Constitution by a vote of the people cost individuals and organizations nearly $40 million and was not necessary except for the activism of the courts,” Prentice said in the video.
Some lawyers said the efforts by the group are troubling. Charles La Bella, a former U.S. attorney, said he’s surprised so many judges are being challenged.
“Maybe people are looking at these positions as some sort of political platform where they can launch their political career with an eye toward another position,” La Bella said. “That would worry me because you would hope judges don’t have a political agenda. You go into court, you hope a judge is going to judge cases on facts, not based on a political agenda they have.”
Criminal defense attorney Geoffrey C. Morrison said the judges who’ve been targeted are considered mainstream law-and-order judges without an agenda. He said he is concerned that the website founders are trying to make the bench reflect a certain ideology. Judges, he said, are supposed to be apolitical.
“Part of it is a manifestation of the polarization of politics,” Morrison said, “and what we’re seeing is the religious right is attempting to inject itself at the municipal and county levels to impose its agenda on the rest of the politic. And the problem is that these are people who’ve been elected.”
It’s not unheard of for a sitting judge to be challenged, but their opponents rarely win.
“It’s very tough to take out an incumbent judge but we’ve never seen the anti-incumbent mood of the public like we’re seeing now,” said political consultant John Dadian.
Two candidates who consented to interviews mentioned the website but downplayed their involvement in an organized effort. Other website supporters said the group plans a formal announcement online. Other candidates and website supporters did not return calls seeking comment.
Trask, one of the group’s candidates who is general counsel for a mortgage bank, mentioned the website and said he and others want to give voters choices.
“If you don’t challenge a sitting judge, their name does not come up on the ballot,” Trask said. “It’s kind of a system where the voters don’t get an option in this type of thing. So this is an opportunity to give them an option.”
Another candidate, Kincaid, who handles family law, civil litigation, business law and criminal defense matters, said the country’s electorate is unhappy with incumbents.
People are tired of activist judges, he said, “so that makes a political climate that is appropriate to be able to step out and let the people know you will be a servant to them.”
Kincaid previously ran for judge in 2006, when he ran into problems over a letter he wrote to supporters that vilified organizations such as the La Raza Lawyers Association, the NAACP and a gay and lesbian lawyers’ group as radical.
Correction: The original version of this story said the group wasn’t registered with the federal government. It should’ve said the group wasn’t registered with the state government. We regret the error.
Please contact Kelly Thornton directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.