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

Published: 27 May 2012 08:01 AM

The down-ballot judicial races in Riverside County are among the harshest campaigns in the June 5 primary election, with charges flying from both sides.

It’s the first time in 18 years that incumbent judges have been challenged in the county. The nonpartisan campaigns in 2012 seem to be making up for lost time.

Challengers claim in Web postings and mailers that the two incumbents seated in Riverside, Judge Craig Riemer and Judge Gary Tranbarger, have made rogue-judge rulings.

Among the claims: Riemer “sided” with child molesters, chose not to give a 25-years-to-life three-strikes sentence to a career criminal who went on to victimize more people, and declared a mistrial in one case because it was going to run one day into his scheduled vacation.

Tranbarger is accused of giving a lesser sentence to a convicted child molester, engaging in “illegal” plea-bargaining in an attempted-murder case, and making rulings to get the trial results he wants.

“I have been running against Gary Tranbarger’s record since February, and he has been running away from it,” his opponent, Richard T. Nixon, said.

The judges say they followed the law, including decisions in those child-molestation cases which have concluded, allowing them to comment.

“As is so often the case, when they’re describing some decision I’ve made, they’ve left out all the important facts,” Riemer said during an interview about one of the disputed rulings.

The judges claim that the Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Association’s political action committee is trying to upend the independent judiciary with its contributions.

As of late May, the PAC had donated more than $103,000 to Supervising Deputy District Attorney John Henry, who is running against Riemer, and more than $15,600 to Nixon, a private attorney and former Riverside County deputy district attorney, who is challenging Tranbarger.

Association leaders say that the money is needed to overcome the judges’ incumbency advantage.

Henry has added that judicial elections, while unusual in Riverside County, are part of the state constitution.

“This is a judge who is sworn to uphold the law who is taking issue with the law he is sworn to uphold,” Henry said of criticism by Riemer and his supporters about using an election, rather than the appointment system, to become a judge.

In two desert-bench races, attorney Tom Eckhardt is running for the office of Judge Victoria Cameron; and lawyer Michael Kennedy is running for the bench held by Judge James Cox.

Judgeships are county-wide, although most jurists in this 7,200-square-mile jurisdiction are assigned to one courthouse for several years.

RIEMER RULING

On its website, the prosecutors association cites Riemer’s actions in People v. John Lake as “a perfect example of Judge Riemer’s failure to protect our community.”

Riemer said in an interview it was an example of how information is being left out of an account to make him appear reckless.

In the 2007 case, Riemer ruled against giving a 25-years-to-life “three strikes” sentence to Lake, based on his conviction for felony embezzlement of something valued more than $400 — in this case, Lake’s mother’s car.

Riemer gave Lake, who had an adult criminal history stretching back to 1979, a sentence of four years. He was released immediately after the May 16 sentencing because of credit for time served.

Lake was back in custody by October, in Orange County, where prosecutors said between Sept. 27 and Oct. 5 of that year, Lake sneaked into hotel rooms and stole cameras, computers, jewelry and clothing. He drove stolen cars during the crime spree.

Lake was sentenced to 250 years to life in Orange County.

Christopher Cook, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted Lake in Riverside County, heard about the Orange County case. Cook said in an interview he did not seek out Riemer to tell him about it, but he was in the judge’s courtroom when a proceeding had just concluded, and mentioned it to him. Cook said Riemer’s reaction was, “Oh well, better there than here.”

“I was shocked. I really was,” Cook said about Riemer’s comment. “He was so aloof about it. … there was no question this guy was going to victimize more people,” Cook said of Lake. “And he did not disappoint.”

Riemer said it was within his discretion to rule whether Lake’s conviction merited a three-strike sentence.

He said Lake had borrowed his mother’s car, with her permission. The mother fell ill and was hospitalized; Lake continued to drive the car, but without her permission. Lake’s sister complained. He was charged with auto theft, theft from an elder by a caretaker, and with receiving stolen property and embezzlement. The mother remained ill and unable to use the car, Riemer said.

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