By Royal Calkins
I once had coffee with a retired Monterey County judge, John N. Anton, who was supplementing his pension by serving as a visiting judge around the state. He would take the place of vacationing judges and use their offices during the assignments.
He told me about a troubling observation. In almost every chamber he used, he saw conspicuous displays of law enforcement support for the vacationing jurist. Plaques of commendation from police organizations. Trophies with gold-plated handcuffs. Pictures of the judge shaking hands with police chiefs and sheriffs.
What he almost never saw were commendations from the ACLU or the defense bar, or pictures of the judges with civil rights activists or lawyers other than prosecutors. He didn’t see any framed letters from defendants or their families thankful for a fair shake.
Anton found that almost all the judges he filled in for, like a majority of judges, were former prosecutors and that their coziness with law enforcement was more than accepted — it was declared and rewarded.
It occurred to Anton that if any of the judges had put up citations from the defense bar or pictures of exonerated defendants, the items would be cited in prosecution motions to disqualify them.
Anton had been a public defender before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the bench. Even so, he noted that even relatively liberal, Democratic governors like Brown tend to favor prosecutors when selecting judges because, politically, it is a safe bet. Eighty-five percent of Barack Obama’s first-term judicial appointees were either prosecutors or corporate lawyers. He didn’t begin a more balanced approach until his second term, when he wouldn’t have to worry about re-election.
I was reminded of Judge Anton when I read the published comments of Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo last week as he announced his upcoming retirement after 27 years as the county’s chief prosecutor. He mentioned that about 25 prosecutors from his office had been appointed to the bench in that time, and that he was proud to take some of the credit.
Twenty-five Monterey County prosecutors on the bench. I can’t find any useful figures on the number of defense lawyers from these parts who became judges, but it is a safe bet that it’s a single digit. A small one. The only one that comes to mind is Andrew Liu, who started as a prosecutor, in New York and then Monterey County, then became a defense attorney before running for judge.
The job of a judge on the criminal bench is to help protect the public from crime and, just as importantly, to protect the public from violations of their civil rights. At the moment there are three former prosecutors on the U.S. Supreme Court and no defense lawyers. It has been that way for decades now and you can see the effect of the numbers in the steady erosion of laws protecting us from unreasonable searches, from law enforcement overreach, from self-incrimination.
The next time you hear someone complain about the liberal courts, you might want to make like a good judge and ask to see the evidence.
OK, I buried the lede. The big political news of the past week was Flippo’s announcement and the nearly simultaneous announcement that one of his top prosecutors, Jeannine Pacioni, will campaign for his job. It’s unlikely anyone else from the office will join the race, and the private lawyers I talked to said they haven’t heard of any potential challengers from outside the office.
I’m hoping that someone who isn’t a prosecutor will jump in so the campaign will be more than a coronation or a back and forth on who is tougher on crime. I don’t know much about Pacioni. I like that she is a close friend of retired Monterey Police Chief Phil Penko, one of the good guys. I worry about the time early in her career when she worked under longtime Kern County DA Ed Jagels, one of the truly bad guys.
I’m hoping she has forgotten everything he taught her.
Speaking of elections: For the most part, I was pleased to see the turnout of progressive types when Tyller Williamson announced his candidacy for the Monterey City Council a week or so ago. There was Jane Parker and Alan Haffa, George Riley and the Turners, Dan and Jeanne. Gary Karnes was there, which made it official. Williamson is on the left side of the spectrum.
But it bothered me as well, because it is an indication that the council election in November will be another one in a long series of showdowns between left and right at the local level, tree huggers vs. builders, people persons vs. corporate types. What can get neglected in such contests is government experience, community knowledge, parliamentary expertise, listening skills and well-roundedness.
Tyller is the complete package, but I do wish local elections had not become so partisan. By the way, I blame the GOP for that. They’re the ones that keep a tally of how many local council members are Repubs.
Up for grabs in November are two council seats, those held now by Timothy Barrett and Ed Smith, a lefty and a righty, and Mayor Clyde Roberson’s seat. Barrett is known to be considering a run for mayor, particularly if Roberson doesn’t run and if Barrett can line up enough financial support, which explains why he has tried so hard to cozy up to the commercial interests on the wharf.
This could get interesting, even if you don’t live in Monterey.
Calkins writes a weekly column focusing on local politics and public affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 831-595-8899.
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