By Miriam Raftery and Sierra Robinson
May 24, 2012 (La Mesa) – They make life or death decisions. Superior Court judges may determine who goes to prison—and for how long. They hear civil lawsuits, juvenile and family court cases. Their decisions can bring victims closure or tear families apart—and their rulings may set long-lasting precedents.
Yesterday, three candidates vying for San Diego Superior Court Seat 25 presented their arguments why each contends he is the best qualified for the bench. The forum was presented by Foothills Bar Association at BJ’s restaurant in La Mesa.
They bring diverse qualifications to the race. Robert Amador is a career prosecutor and San Diego Deputy District Attorney who now works as a liaison with law enforcement organizations. Georgel Schaefer is a San Diego Deputy City Attorney who has previously worked as a D.A. and assistant public defender in other jurisdictions. Jim Miller, an attorney in El Cajon, has experience in civil and family law cases.
“We started this forum a couple of years ago because we realized that we had candidates for judges and nobody knew very much about them,” said moderator Mark Raftery with Foothills Bar Association. “One of these three candidates will be a judge and sit for many years.”
Though the race is nonpartisan, two candidates have sought out endorsements from political parties, as well as political leaders, judges, law enforcement and community leaders. The race is on the ballot county-wide; top two vote-getters will go on to a run-off in November unless one candidate secures over 50 percent of the votes.
“I have a very diverse background,” said Amador, who emphasized over 29 years experience as a prosecutor in the San Diego District Attorney’s office. He currently works as a Law Enforcement Liaison between the D.A.’s office and law enforcement. He has started programs to help law enforcement identify serious juvenile offenders, started a gang unit, and wrote a grant to start the Drug Endangered Children’s program.
He and his wife have raised four children here, including two fostser children. “My oldest daughter died at 18,” he told the audience, adding that the tragedy has given him “empathy, as someone who suffered a loss.”
Amador has also worked as a trial attorney. “You need trial experience to understand the rules of evidence,” he said. “You don’t want to have to appeal a case because the judge didn’t know the rules of evidence…I have the maturity and experience to be a great Superior Court Judge.”
Schaefer told the audience, “What I stand for is equal justice under the law…We need equal access under the law, and we need competent judges.”
Schaefer also stressed his diverse background. As Deputy City Attorney, he has handled major civil cases, successfully defending the city in the federal Mt. Soledad cross case and the La Jolla Children’s Pool case. He’s served as both a District Attorney and Assistant Public Defender in other jurisdictions, gaining experience both defending and prosecuting criminal cases.
He also ran a private law practice for over 17 years. “I handled complex civil cases,” he said, citing a class action that went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Schaefer began his legal career representing indigent persons in Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), including a case that went to the Alaska Supreme Court. “We need a judge who is ready to go in any division—criminal, family or civil,” he concluded.
Miller argued that our over-burdened court system needs more judges with civil and family law experience. “I’m the attorney who has not relied n the government for making a living,” he said, noting that judges must rotate among five different divisions.
“Over 90 percent of judges come from a government backaground,” said Miller, an attorney who has handled civil, criminal and family law cases. He is also certified as an arbitrator by the County Bar Association and serves as a Judge Pro Tem and County Hearing Officer. “I bring broad-based experience back to the courts,” he said, adding, “A public paycheck is not public service.”
He previously ran for judge in 2010 in a close contest, losing by 1.8 percent. He has stated that he will “rule on the law, not legislate from the bench.”
LOCAL BAR RATINGS RAISE CONTROVERSY
Of the three candidates, Miller is the only one rated as “lacking qualifications” by the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA), the county's largest professional legal association. Both Amador and Schaeffer were rated "well qualified."
In opening remarks, Miller accused the organization of being politically motivated.
“I’ve been unable to find where a private lawyer who is a Republican got anything other than `not qualified,'” Miller said, accusing the Bar of “gamesmanship.”
But his opponents disputed that view.
“I thought it was fair,” Amador said of the Bar’s intensive screening process. “I had an hour interview and they still rated me well qualified—and I am a Republican.
Schaefer, a Democrat, also said he felt the process was “very fair…The references that I listed, attorneys and judges, were contacted. My political affiliation never came up. I just don’t think there’s a basis for that.”
According to the San Diego Daily Transcript, The SDCBA's Judicial Elections Evaluation (JEEC) Committee evaluates candidates’ qualifications to serve as judicial officers based on factors that include judicial temperament, intellect and ability, knowledge of the law, trial experience and professional reputation. In addition to a candidate questionnaire, a JEEC subcommittee investigation includes sending confidential questions to legal community members regarding candidates. The subcommittees interview candidates and vote on ratings which the full SDCBA board may accept or deny. Each candidate has a right to appeal a negative rating before it becomes public. For more details, see the SDCBA's judicial candidate's packet.
ANSWERING AUDIENCE QUESTIONS
The first question asked each candidate to name one trait that most qualifies them to become a judge.
“I have both experience and youth,” said Miller, who said he aspires to have a positive impact on the community for 20 -25 years. He also emphasized is broad experience.
Schaefer said colleagues have told him that “I am a good listener and a hard worker.” He emphasized that he has also handled 125 appeals. “Those are good skills for a judge,” he said. “Be open-minded and fair…be hard working and do the legal research.”
Amador cited “the way I treat people” as his most important strength. “I have in my entire career treated defendants, staff, and other attorneys with a high level of respect.”
The next question asked candidates the most important case on which they’ve worked.
Amador cited a death penalty case as the most challenging of his career, involving over 20,000 pages of discovery and more than 150 witnesses. “I had to try it two times,” he said, recalling the difficulty in convincing a key witness to testify. “It was one of the most sobering, maturing moments of my life,” he said of the verdict: guilty. “Legally, morally and personally, it was the most important case.”
“The most important to me personally was when I was a young lawyer and my business partner, my best friend, died in my arms in the Baja desert…He bled out in an off-road vehicle accident,” said Miller, who defended the estate against a challenge to a holographic will.
Schaeffer recalled his appointment by a court to represent a mother with a drug problem who faced losing her child. “I was able to get her into treatment and in the end, she was able to keep her daughter,” he said.
An audience member asked how many cases each candidate has tried before a judge or jury.
Miller said he has tried only five jury trials, but has also tried 75 to 100 bench trials before a judge, primarily in family and civil cases.
Schaefer has handled 112 jury trials and hundreds of bench trials.
Amador’s career includes trying over 100 jury trials and 250 court trials; he has appeared in thousands of criminal cases.
Another question asked candidates which endorsement they are most proud to claim.
Amador replied, “The Lawyer’s Club,” referring to an organization that champions the advancement of women in the law and society. He recalled an era in the D.A.’s office when it was not friendly to women or minorities – a sharp contrast to today, with D.A. Bonnie Dumanis. Amador is also endorsed by 82 current and retired judges, numerous Deputy District Attorneys, Sheriff William Gore, Mayor Jerry Sanders, San Diego Police Officers Association and D.A. Bonnie Dumanis.
Schaefer is also supported by the Lawyers’ Club, but said he’s most proud of the San Diego Firefighters endorsement. “They know my work. I was President of the Deputy D.A.’s association, working with firefighters on important issues.” He cites as his most important individual endorsement City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a Republican. Schaefer is also endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party, the Deputy City Attorneys Association, two judges, former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, Congresssman Bob Filner, and Assemblyman Marty Block.
Miller said he considers endorsements by citizens to be his most important support. “Over 440,000 people cast their votes for me in 2010.” Other endorsements for Miller include the California Republican Party, San Diego County Republican Party, the Lincoln Club of San Diego, six judges, numerous attorneys, and politicians including State Senator Joel Anderson and Assemblyman Brian Jones.
Youth vs. Experience: Amador was asked why he decided late in his career to become a judge.
“I think people who become judges at Mr. Miller’s age are too young,” Amador replied, adding that he has met his goals including handling a death penalty case and is ready for new challenges as a judge serving the community. “I have the experience and maturity,” he said, adding that he’s seen “people on the bench with grey hair who had wisdom and experience.”
Miller maintained that his youth is an asset, since he can serve for many years on the bench.
Schaeffer noted that he ran for judge back in 1996, missing a runoff by just 15 votes. After reminding the audience that every vote counts, he added, “I’ve wanted to be a judge for a long time. Just as we do not have age discrimination in the private sector, I don’t think we should have it for judges.”
An audience member asked candidates to name their biggest mistake, and what they learned from it.
Miller recalled losing an early civil case due to jury selection. “The lawyer opposing me was outstanding…how she handled each juror to draw out a response,” he said. “Since then I have followed her lead.”
Schaeffer regretted not seeking a plea bargain for a young man accused of conspiracy to sell cocaine to a famous basketball player. “It went to trial and with mandatory sentencing, he was sent to prison for 20 years. …I believe he could have been completely rehabilitated. People who committed violent crimes, homicides, are getting less time,” he said.
Amador said that in 1984, he took for granted that a jury would accept the evidence in a battery case. “The jury just didn’t care,” he said. “You have to give a jury a reason to care…it taught me a lot for the future.”
Candidates were asked what they enjoy doing when off the bench.
Schaefer said he likes to travel. “I love experiencing different cultures…I try to learn as much as possible about different people and different places.”
Miller said he spends free time with his wife and children, including his youngest, a four-year-old daughter. He also enjoys “giving back to the community,” including serving on the foundation of a nonprofit.
Amador stated that he has taught police officers about the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendment. "I intend to teach at law schools and colleges soon," he added.
Miller reminded the audience of the judiciary branch’s importance to provide checks and balances against other branches of the government. “We have to focus more on our judges,” he said. “If they have never handled family or business litigation cases, do you want a judge learning on the bench, or one who learned in private practice? Being a great prosecutor or a great lawyer does not necessarily translate into being a great judge.”
He noted that a judge must be neutral and hear both sides, something he has experience in as an arbitrator. He also pointed out that the same Bar Association that listed him as not qualified to be a judge “finds me more than qualified to hear their arbitrations.”
Amador emphasized that he’s been a Deputy D.A. for many years. “I’ve tried a lot of cases and I’ve worked hard my whole life,” he said. He pointed out that judges are provided with mentor judges to help them learn areas of the law where they lack expertise, noting that all candidates in the race have both areas of expertise and areas of law yet to learn.
“I have judgment and I am rated `well qualified’ by the Bar. I will make a very good Superior Court Judge.” A good judge should “take a look at the big picture and have life experience. Bonnie Dumanis, my boss, has said `Bob, do the right thing,’” Amador concluded, and that’s what I’ve done.”
Schaeffer said it’s important to place trust in our judges. “I know I can do the job and be fair and impartial.” He added that the Bar Association rating is “very important,” adding, “The Bar Association talked to a lot of people who determine who is qualified.”
He summed up, “I know I’m well qualified and I want the job…My slogan is`You are safer with Schafer' and I need your support.’”
On Tuesday, June 5, voters will issue their final verdict at the polls.
To learn more about the candidates, visit their websites at: