Photo credit: Khari Johnson
Family court Judge Robert Longstreth is facing a challenge in the June election
Pastor Chris Clark of East Clairemont Baptist Church was involved in the fight to keep the cross on Mt. Soledad and helped rally hundreds of religious leaders statewide for the Yes on Prop 8 campaign.
He saw judicial activism in both cases and Prop. 8 “may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“It has just reached a head and something needs to be done,” he said. “[The judiciary] is a branch of government that’s just getting out of control.”
It’s why he decided to join 20 other members of the community, primarily politicians and Christian pastors and activists, to be in video endorsements for bettercourtsnow.com and support a slate of candidates to challenge local incumbent Superior Court judges in the upcoming June 8 primaries.
Clark was asked to participate by Bettercourtsnow.com creator Don Hamer, pastor at Zion Christian Fellowship.
The Web site, which launched in December, is meant to inform voters and let judges know they will be held accountable for their decisions and can be replaced, Hamer said.
Hamer started to organize the idea of the site three years ago, “long before Proposition 8 became an issue,” he said, though he added the statewide measure that banned gay marriage didn’t hurt their attempts to rally a conservative base against judges.
“Some of these judges have a disregard for the law,” Hamer said. “We’re trying to give people a voice again, because right now we don’t have one.”
An official slate of candidates will be released at the end of the month. No incumbent judges were interviewed for endorsements, and no particular criticisms or examples of judicial activism will be posted to the site, Hamer said.
“I have to refrain from giving examples,” he said. “It’s not my goal to bad mouth anyone. But I will tell you I could give you a lot of examples.”
Each candidate went through a “vetting process” in which they were asked whether or not they support abortion or gay marriage.
“We did ask those questions, but the answers came back in a way that we know we had fair and just judges,” Hamer said.
Three of the four incumbents to be challenged are family courts judges, and three sit on the bench in El Cajon.
Contended races are:
— Craig Candelore challenging Judge Lantz Lewis;
— Bill Trask challenging Judge Robert Longstreth;
— Harold Coleman challenging Judge DeAnn Salcido; and
— Larry Kincaid challenging Judge Joel Wohlfeil.
Superior Court judges are appointed by the governor, but every two years about one-third of Superior Court judges face election campaigns.
Challenging incumbent judges is rare, especially for someone like Longstreth, who has only been a judge in downtown family courts since June 2008 and held a fundraiser last week at his former law firm downtown.
“We need to get prepared for a big fight,” said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, a Longstreth supporter. “Make no mistake about it. They are going to be organized and they are going to raise money. And it is a fight for the independence of the judiciary.”
Top endorsements for Longstreth include deputy district attorneys and sheriffs, and former sheriff Bill Kolender.
“I think all the judges realize, as Bonnie mentioned, that this is something significant. Significant that we’ve had so many challenged,” said Longstreth. “And I think it’s really important that judges be selected based on qualifications, integrity, experience and judgments, not on political or partisan agendas.”
Also at the fundraiser were about 30 sitting Superior Court judges, as well as City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, public defender Henry Coker and Judge Harry Powazek, who almost faced a challenge of his own, said campaign adviser Jennifer Tierney.
Tierney will run the election campaigns for three of the judges being challenged.
She was surprised to see so many judges challenged since each is considered pretty moderate.
“If someone starts that drumbeat about being too conservative or liberal, these races are run with so little money it’s hard to do anything about it,” she said.
Though Tierney’s Gemini Group has run election campaigns for 90 San Diego judges, she isn’t sure what to expect. Since there are no limits to budgets of Superior Court races, money on both sides will be critical.
“We won’t know how organized they are until we see their financial filings and where the money’s coming from,” she said.
Sam Godkin met Longstreth once at a friend’s social event.
Godkin ran his family law practice in San Diego for 12 years before having his first child three years ago, which made his work much more personal.
“Having kids added a whole different perspective to me I never saw,” he said.
He agrees judges need to decide cases in a uniform way, and said he came to the fundraiser because he believes if he ever had to appear in family court with his own children, he’d want someone like Longstreth to preside over the case.
“The last thing I’d do is have someone really bad deal with my kids,” Godkin said. “Family law requires more work than any other kind of law. You need good, competent judges when kids are involved.”
Longstreth’s opponent Trask, a vice president at a mortgage lender, declined to comment on the race.
Brett Maxfield was running against Powazek, but Maxfield’s intent-to-run petition was thrown out. The retired judge ruling on the case came from Riverside County.
“No judge in San Diego County would touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Maxfield said, claiming his petition to run was thrown out on a technicality.
In order to campaign to be a Superior Court judge, candidates have to have at least 10 years of membership with the state bar, which Maxfield claims took place after he was sworn in June 1, 2000, not the date on his Bar card, July 31, 2000.
“The whole system is so rigged down here. It’s very difficult to get justice around here,” Maxfield said.
Maxfield said he wanted to appeal but couldn’t get it before a judge in time.
“If there’s anything illegal about what the Superior Court did, someone more powerful than me’s going have to make it right,” he said.
Maxfield moved to San Diego in 2004 working in the city’s real estate assets department, where he said he saw widespread corruption and was fired for blowing the whistle. Afterward, he worked in securities fraud law, ran for the state Assembly and applied for the local U.S. district attorney post, but is now considering leaving San Diego.
“The case of Randy ”Duke” Cunningham was not an anomaly. It’s the standard operation of the way things work in this county,” Maxfield said. “They don’t want me to be a judge. I’d cause problems. I know where all the skeletons are buried.”
The bettercourtsnow.com site doesn’t have to do with religion and isn’t politically motivated, Clark and Hamer said. It has to do with identifying activist judges, promoting strict constructionism on the bench and informing voters.
But some content on the site could be seen as contradicting this claim.
Aside from the endorsements, nearly all posts on bettercourtsnow.com are news stories verbatim from — but not always attributed to — other sites. The sites are mainly newspapers, but also christianpost.com stories reporting about prayer in Florida schools and Christian student groups’ right to exclude non-Christians from becoming voting members or leaders. A Protect Marriage Action Fund press release is also included. In partnership with Protect Marriage, Clark worked with more than 300 pastors statewide to help rally the Christian vote for Proposition 8.
There are three separate posts of a video of the last 10 minutes of a Newt Gingrich speech at a David Horowitz gathering, which sums up the strategy for conservative political victory in 2012 elections.
“We’re going to have to isolate and crush secular socialist left and replace their failed systems with systems that will succeed,” Gingrich said in the video in which he advocates impeaching judges of the U.S. Ninth District Court for aiming to strike “one nation under God” from the pledge of allegiance. “This is work George Washington would approve of.”
The only post that looks truly unique or made by site creators is entitled “They are taking your children” about family rights in family courts. Again, no particular judges or decisions are named.
“We must keep innocent parents from losing their children and breaking up families based on hearsay evidence and the whims of judges,” the post reads.
Organizations and individuals associated with bettercourtsnow.com include:
– Protect Marriage Action Fund executive director Ron Prentice;
– Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, director and founder of The Ruth Institute, which promotes marriage between a man and a woman;
– Dran Reese, director of The Salt and Light Council, which “provides a structure and readiness for a quick response to issues that surface attacking family values and God’s Non-Negotiable moral values.”
– Frank Kacer, founder and executive director of the Christian Citizenship Council;
– Dwight Johnson, founder of the Christian Catalyst;
– Charles Li Mandri, West Coast regional director of Thomas More Law Center, which calls itself “the sword and shield for people of faith”;
– Dean Broyles, an attorney for the Western Center for Law and Policy;
– John Woodrum, president of the Eagle Forum in San Diego;
– Joel Anderson, 77th District state Assemblymember;
– Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa
“A new day is coming,” Clark said in his video endorsement on the Web site “because we have bettercourtsnow.com who has done the homework we’d not previously done.”
Getting out the vote
The Ramona Tea Party is tentatively scheduled to host Hamer, who will discuss judicial activism at a May 29 meeting, just ahead of the June 8 primaries.
“This is a backwater area,” said John Selck, a member of the organization’s steering committee who moved to the town from Wisconsin eight years ago. “Ramona is conservative potting soil.”
Patrick Kiernan, another member of the Tea Party steering committee, met Hamer by posting a link to the Ramona Tea Party Web site on Bettercourtsnow’s Facebook page.
Kiernan and his wife Norma own a garden supply store in Ramona. Like almost everyone they know in the Tea Party, Kiernan said, this is the first time they’ve been politically active in their lives, though they have always voted.
“Whenever we vote, our biggest weakness is judicial,” he said. “You see a name, and I’ve never heard of the guy.”
Norma, a former legal assistant for law firms, school districts and at one time the state attorney general, said she has never visited bettercourtsnow.com.
In her former work, she saw first-hand the process of judge selection and appointment, and called it “a very detailed and absolutely non-prejudicial way to get candidates.”
“I don’t see prejudice in everything,” she said. “I don’t look at things that way.”
Still, she said, people should know who they’re voting for in Superior Court races, just like any other election.
“I cringe when voting on judges. Probably 99 out of 100 people have no idea what they’re voting for, so there’s got to be a better way to do it.”
Khari Johnson is an SDNN contributing writer.