BY RICHARD K. De ATLEY
STAFF WRITER
rdeatley@pe.com

Published: 04 May 2012 05:40 PM

Four judicial races in Riverside County’s June 5 election have divided the region’s usually collegial legal community and brought out issues much larger than the names on the ballot.

It’s lit up court hallway debates over the quality of the county’s judiciary, campaign money, judicial rulings and temperament, and even whether judicial elections are the right way to the bench.

Two of the races in Riverside have drawn the most attention and the most contention; they include accusations of big-money influence from public employee political action committees, countered by claims that it’s time for judges in the county to be held to answer at election time, the same as supervisors or city council members.

This is the first time in 18 years that any seated judge in Riverside County has had to fight for his or her non-partisan office. A majority of judges are first appointed by a governor; judicial elections in Riverside County are usually over vacant positions.

Twelve offices were up for election in the county next month, and the unopposed eight will begin a new six-year cycle without appearing on the ballot. If there are no vacant benches, or challenges to incumbents, big gaps of time can go by before a superior court election of any kind comes before voters.

Two of the judges fighting for re-election are currently seated in Riverside, and two are in the desert. Judicial offices are countywide, but judges generally work in the same courthouses for years.

For the Riverside benches, Superior Court Judge Craig Riemer is being challenged by Supervising Deputy District Attorney John Henry, while Judge Gary Tranbarger faces a former prosecutor, Richard T. Nixon, who is now in private practice.

Judge Victoria E. Cameron, seated at the Larson Justice Center in Indio, is being challenged by attorney Thomas Eckhardt. And Judge James A. Cox, assigned to a Palm Springs probate court, faces attorney Michael Kennedy.

The races in Riverside pit those who support Riemer and Tranbarger against not only their opponents, but also the motives of Henry and Nixon’s financial backing . The challengers’ supporters say the big donations are vital for the uphill push needed against incumbents Riemer and Tranbarger, especially in a “bottom-of-the-ballot” race.

Henry has reported receiving $100,000 from the political action committee for the Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys Association, a union representing the county’s prosecutors.

He has also received $14,000 from other law-enforcement PACs, including those from Palm Springs, Corona, and Riverside police officers associations, and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Association.Henry has the backing of some defense attorneys as well.

Riemer’s and Tranbarger’s supporters say they are trying to preserve the quality of the judiciary against efforts to politicize it . They say prosecutors are targeting two judges who have been willing to take heat with unpopular rulings that follow the law, and who insist on precision in documents and court presentations.

“I think it is outrageous,” defense attorney Virginia Blumenthal said of the challenge to Riemer in particular, calling it “a threat to an independent judiciary…I am fearful of it.”

A Riemer campaign letter circulated to members of the Riverside County Bar Association said that of all the challenged judgeships, “the most serious threat is that to Judge Riemer,” and describes Henry’s campaign as “the union’s attempt to buy (Riemer’s) seat.”

The letter says successful civil attorneys who might be qualified for the bench will be discouraged from leaving a lucrative private practice for the public-service salary of a judge, if the expense of an election fight every six years is a certainty. The result, the letter suggests, is that the bench will chiefly become attractive to those whose salaries will be increased by gaining it.

‘We Went All In’

For those seeking to oust the judges, it’s a chance to revive contested judicial elections in Riverside County as the state constitution’s path for voters to pick judges. And they say they are being open about their effort.

“We went all in – there’s no doubt about that. We want John Henry to win, and we went to great lengths to explain ourselves,” said Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin, vice president of the association, which represents about 280 prosecutors.

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