June 17, 2011 (San Diego) – Opponents of SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink hope to have their day in court on Tuesday, June 21. A lawsuit filed by three local organizations seeking an injunction to halt the Powerlink is set for hearing at 9 a.m. in U.S. District Court at 940 Front Street, Courtroom 3, in downtown San Diego.
“We are asking our supporters to wear green,” said Laura Cyphert with Protect Our Communities Foundation and c-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition, both groups seeking to stop the project based on concerns over fire danger, destruction of views, and other factors. Backcountry Against Dumps, a Campo-based group, is also participating in the suit.
To date, the legal effort to stop Powerlink has raised more than a half million dollars (about $560,000, Cyphert said last night). The case has been plagued by delays, including four changes of judges. Judge Roger Benitez is now assigned to the case.
Benitez was nominated by President George W. Bush and joined the court in 2004. Born in Cuba and raised in the Imperial Valley, he obtained a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University and a juris doctorate from Western State. He worked as a private practice attorney for two decades and also worked as a part-time instructor at Imperial Valley College in 1998-1999. He became a California Superior Court Judge in 1997 and in 2001 was appointed a federal magistrate Judge.
His supporters, including Marilyn Huff, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court in San Diego, praised him as the “embodiment of the American Dream,.” But according to the San Diego Union Tribune, opponents cited a rare “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association, which gave four such ratings to judicial nominees under the Bush administration and four under President Bill Clinton. The rating was given not due to rulings made by Benitez, but due to his courtroom demeanor. Richard Macias, an investigator for the ABA, called Benitez “short-tempered, rude, insulting, bullying, unnecessarily mean, and altogether lacking in people skills,” among other criticisms.
Benitez said he strives to be “fair and courteous” and suggested the criticism stemmed from the fact that as the only magistrate in El Centro, he handled 1,494 cases—more than 10 magistrates in Northern California combined. “Sometimes we don’t have the liberty to be as relaxed, as accommodating,” he explained.
As a judge, Benitez has ordered Viewtech, Inc. and its jailed founder to pay $214 million to Echostar Satellite LLC for building and selling piracy devices to break Echostar encryption signals. He also dismissed a fraud case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission against Gateway’s chief executive officer. He drew controversy for ruling that a Poway teacher had the right under the First Amendment to display banners reading “One nation under God” and “God shed his grace on thee” in a public school classroom.
Prior to Benitez being assigned the case, a prior judge removed himself, another was removed, while the earliest judge assigned was transferred off the case in order to preside over the trial for the gunman who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed several others, including a federal judge.
SDG&E is well underway in constructing the Sunrise Powerlink and an injunction, if granted, would be a costly proposition. The company contends Powerlink is necessary to meet our region’s power needs and presents its arguments for the line at www.SunrisePowerlink.com. Opponents contend power needs locally are dropping as the number of solar installations increase and that future needs could better be met through local power generation, not long distance transmission lines.