Are San Diego Superior Court Judges Adverse to Open Seat Contests?

by on May 9, 2016 · 4 comments

in Election, History, Politics, San Diego

San Diego CourthouseBy Doug Porter / San Diego Free Press

Nobody cares much about judicial electoral contests. And apparently the current batch of judges in Superior Court would like to keep it that way. At least that was the conclusion I drew after talking with more than a dozen local attorneys and prosecutors.

The 2012 judicial elections, where birther lawyer Gary Kreep upset Deputy District Attorney Garland Peed, were a national embarrassment. Since that time, “open seat” judicial contests have all but vanished in San Diego.

One seat, held by Judge Judy Bashant became technically open in 2014 (she had filed for reelection) when her nomination to the Federal District Court was approved by the Senate.

Another potentially open seat was filled by a miraculously timed retirement (Judge Alvin Green on Friday afternoon, January 24) followed by the immediate appointment (January 28) of Keri Greer Katz. Had the retirement been announced on Monday rather than Friday, this would have been an open seat.


Billboard from 2014 campaign removed after pressure brought to bear on Clear Channel.

Federal prosecutor Carla Keehn originally filed in 2014 for what she thought would be an open seat on the court; then–poof–there weren’t any. She ended up running against Judge Lisa Schall and learned the hard way that the court protects its own.

Eventually, Schall’s conviction for drunk driving was plastered on billboards by Keehn. A few phone calls were made and the billboards disappeared.

When San Diego voters review their June 2016 primary ballots, they’ll (hopefully) notice just two contests for Superior Court judges. The other 38 seats on the court due for voter approval, along with the five open seats for different election cycles, won’t be listed.

How We Got Here

marbury-v-madisonThe 1803 Supreme Court ruling in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, enshrining judicial review of legislation as a key power of the courts, prompted a political movement for term limits on judges.

Thomas Jefferson and others believed the decision tipped the balance of power in favor of a new judicial elite. A six-year term, elections, and other provisions to curtail judicial power are part of every state constitution written after 1846.

In the decades following the mid-nineteenth century, judges made it to the bench through popular — and very political — elections. They ran as members of political parties, openly espousing their platforms.

The progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century brought about reforms designed to depoliticize the judicial selection process. California now has a hybrid model of appointments and elections, with candidates going through a screening process by Bar Association attorneys.

Higher court judges in California are appointed and subsequently appear on ballots unopposed (yes or no vote) at re-election time. Superior Court judges can also be appointed, but can be challenged by other candidates as their staggered six-year terms expire.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

invisiblemanCandidates may compete for an open seat caused by retirement or death. In practice, however, open seats due for election are the first to be filled by appointment, allowing the appointee to run as an incumbent. Back in the days before California became essentially a one-party state, some judges (philosophically opposed to the governor in power) would time their retirements in such a manner as to allow for an open seat election.

To be eligible, judicial candidates must have been members of the California bar or served as a judge in the state for 10 years before taking office. A district attorney has to be a state bar member.

From a 2014 Voice of San Diego article:

The debate over whether Superior Court judges should be elected or appointed recurs nearly every election cycle.

Jon Williams, head of the San Diego County Bar Association, said candidates who run for a bench seat avoid the usual vetting that would occur if they were appointed.

“It’s been my observation that there is more interest these days in obtaining the position of judge through the election process,” Williams said. “Back in the day, you didn’t see as many people raising their hand to challenge a sitting judge.”

Judging Judges

Prior to Gov. Jerry Brown, the most common path for judicial appointments was through various prosecutor’s offices. In recent times, a number of public defenders and other attorneys have been nominated, though some critical of the courts say those nominations go to people who go along to get along.

From Anna Daniels 2014 SDFP article on judicial races:

…appointed judges are vetted in a way that elected judges often are not. There are a number of sites recommended by the League of Women Voters to find out more about these judges. The two sites which I found particularly helpful are and

From the local Bar Association website:

As a service to voters, the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA) evaluates judicial candidates in contested judicial elections. The SDCBA’s Judicial Election Evaluation Committee (JEEC) evaluates each candidate. The JEEC is comprised of 21 members who represent a cross?section of San Diego’s legal community by gender and ethnicity, including lawyers from the public and private sectors, civil and criminal law practitioners, corporate counsel, sole practitioners and members of small, medium and large firms. JEEC members are appointed by the SDCBA President and serve a four-year term.

Note the “as a service to voters” part of that statement. The ratings are not part of any legal requirement for a seat on the court. As of this morning (May 5), no ratings have been posted for the June 2016 election.

In San Diego County, the contested seats are:

Superior Court Judge Office 25

James A. Mangione, Incumbent
judge mangione

Appointed in November 2015

From the Times of San Diego:

Mangione, 61, of San Diego, graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law and got his undergraduate bachelor of arts degree from the University of California, San Diego. He fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Christine Koch Goldsmith.

[Married to City Atty Jan Goldsmith]

Mangione, a Democrat, has been a partner at Wingert, Grebing and Juskie LLP since 2002. He was an attorney in private practice from 1999 to 2002 and in- house counsel at Luna, Brownwood and Rice from 1994 to 1999.

paul warePaul Ware, Justice Department Attorney (with Bureau of Alcohol Firearms & Tobacco)

Ran and lost in 2014. Former US Marine Judge.

Superior Court Judge Office 38

kerikatzKeri Greer Katz, Incumbent

Katz has a long political pedigree in San Diego. Her father, Judge Michael Greer was at the heart of a scandal back a few decades. Her husband is Judge Aaron Katz. She served as chief legal adviser to Mayor Jerry Sanders during her stint at the City Attorney’s office. She was the recipient of the miraculously timed appointment to the bench back in 2014 referenced above.

carla keehnCarla Keehn, Federal Prosecutor

Keehn also ran in 2014, as referenced earlier in the story.

From the San Diego Free Press profile of her in 2014:

Keehn has a long history in law and public service, on both sides of the courtroom. She’s been an Army Judge Advocate General Officer, a public defender, an environmental attorney, and has worked in the US Attorney’s Office in San Diego as a federal prosecutor since 1995. She has worked on cases ranging from drug smuggling to assault on infants, but she says her current position, as coordinator for the Federal Diversion program, is one of the most fulfilling things she has ever done.

A pilot program for rehabilitating of nonviolent federal offenders, the Federal Diversion program has been remarkably successful in San Diego. 500 people have gone through it, kicking their drug habits and gaining the life and job skills they need to be productive members of society. 80% of graduates are employed by the end of one year. And only 3 in 100 people have relapsed into crime. The program Keehn oversees saves taxpayers huge sums of money, costing 10% of what it costs to imprison someone.

Wait, Wait! (Don’t Tell Me)

This simple article on judicial races is one of the toughest I’ve ever had to write.

No lawyer in his/her right mind wants to be quoted in an article about judges.

There is, I believe, a black-robed wall around the local bench. They take care of their own when it comes to politics. The whole business of fundraising for judicial election campaigns gets hinky, especially when considering the bloodlines and marriages abounding in the court system. One story making the rounds is that 30 of the seats on the court are connected; my research found many of the “connections” involved judges no longer on the bench.

And that’s before dealing with the reality of lawyers, who are by nature politically active, making campaign contributions.

Finally, there’s a cottage industry of people who just hate judges. Try an internet search on a judge and they’ll pop up. Sorting the sore losers from the conspiracy theorists from the people who may actually have been wronged is way above my pay grade. I tried, and lots of “great tips” turned out to be dead ends. People get angry when they lose in court. Sometimes they don’t get over it.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon Kramer May 13, 2016 at 9:47 am

FYI, quoted you in this blog about the local criminal defense attorneys soliciting campaign funds for the local judges they plead cases before, to stay in office.

San Diego Judicial Races: Local Lawyers Raise Money & Red Flags
Posted on May 12, 2016
by Sharon Kramer

It is common knowledge among investigative reporters, the California Bureau of State Auditors (BSA) and various court reform groups that California’s Judicial Branch has some rather serious ethics problems occurring in its courtrooms and in its court ethics policing agencies. In a 2015 Report by Center for Public Integrity, polled-investigative journalists from across the country gave California’s Judicial Branch an “F” for transparency and accountability. The primary root causes which have aided this to continue for far too long, seem to be four-fold:
1.) The state’s judicial watchdog agency, the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP), is suppose to police judicial ethics. Yet it rarely punishes for judicial misconduct and nearly never punishes for case-fixing. Case-fixing is the practice of causing litigation outcomes to favor one party and/or their attorney over the other; with judicial decision being founded not on facts in evidence and not in accordance with rules of law.

2.) With little fear of punishment for unethical conduct, judicial appointments are for a lifetime if incumbent judges can intimidate, bully, character assassinate and effectively scare-off anyone and everyone from running against them at election times. No challengers for judicial seats means the judges are automatically “elected” and “re-elected by the voters” every six years without their names even appearing on the ballot.

3.) The public is rarely made aware of which judges have had complaints lodged against them for ethics breaches. Even if someone dares to challenge for their seats which causes the judges’ names appear on ballots, the public doesn’t know if and why some judges should be voted out.

4.) As an example of too much problematic politics in California’s courts, currently in San Diego there are multiple criminal defense attorneys who have teamed up with multiple incumbent San Diego judges to keep two newly appointed judges in office (and discourage all judicial challengers in the future). They are jointly soliciting funds. The fundraising attorneys and beneficiary judges will be jointly-faced with outsider opposing counsels in future court proceedings. The mutually beneficial situation of attorneys coming before judges they helped to remain in office (at nearly $200k p/year) is likely to cause more systemic “hometowning” while CJP-unchecked-case-fixing continues to occur. Hometowning is the practice of giving attorneys known to the judge, unfair advantage. It’s a slippery slope that can cause a judge to aid the wrong party to win a litigation……
“The Commission on Judicial Performance is a little-known agency that has one of the most important jobs in California — to protect the public by investigating complaints against judges and disciplining misconduct. The commission is effectively responsible for maintaining the integrity of California’s courts. Such an important watchdog should be transparent about its operations and should have enough teeth to deter misconduct. But its practices and discipline statistics indicate that it does neither” Joe Sweeny and Tamir Sukkary, San Francisco Chronicle 2016

“I was sent to investigate allegations that a number of San Diego judges had received generous gifts from lawyers. Were the allegations true? Sure. It was a matter of public record. Judges reported expensive golf dates, health club memberships, dinners and banquets…(Later we discovered more — but so much was known to everyone.) No harm in that I was told. The local bench and bar had always enjoyed a close relationship…what could be more natural than lawyers inviting their former colleagues, now elevated to the bench to friendly harbor cruises, the Super Bowl or weekend condominium…Did the gift-givers appear in court before the gift-takers? You bet. And not only did the appear, but the did very nicely, thank you….Was there a relationship between the gifts and the rulings? The question is naive. When a judge accepts gifts from lawyers there is no need for a payoff in any particular case. The parties have established a climate of mutual esteem and of mutual help that rises about mere payoffs” John Plotz, former investigator for the CJP 1997

“There is, I believe, a black-robed wall around the local bench. They take care of their own when it comes to politics. The whole business of fundraising for judicial election campaigns gets hinky, especially when considering the bloodlines and marriages abounding in the court system.” Doug Porter, San Diego Free Press 2016

In San Diego, there is a criminal history of collusive case-fixing, a continued peculiar relationship between the bench and bar, multiple generational-matrimonial family ties among the judges, and a judicial ethics watchdog that is toothless….

Judges are suppose to be smart, logical and above reproach. Why would a whole host of incumbent judges find it wise, ethical and uncompromised to allow so many criminal defense attorneys to help them solicit money to stay in their courts for a lifetime? Was it a group brain-freeze, callous numbness to the status quo, or a self-perception that they are above the law?….


Eight of the incumbent fundraisers are currently running themselves for “voter election” and/or “re-election”. Unlike Judge Greer Katz, Judge Mangione and the challengers to their seats, Ms. Carla Keehn and Mr. Paul Ware — these eight do not need campaign funding to help inform the voters that they are the most honest, ethical and knowledgeable candidate for the office of judge.

This is because they are running unopposed with their “elections/re-elections” being automatic. If they can collectively scare off any challengers for their judicial seats in the future, they’ll never need to go through a true voter re-election.

Of the 21 other funds solicitors, 20 appear to be criminal defense attorneys who practice before the sitting judges in their San Diego courts…..

Like many others, I strongly believe that a forensic audit by the Bureau of State Auditors and resultant overhaul of the Commission on Judicial Performance is direly needed for the future integrity of our courts.

Read the blog in its entirety and view relevant videos at:


Paul OSullivan June 3, 2016 at 12:14 am

UN-ENDORSEMENT OF SUPERIOR COURT Judge Keri Katz. Brown appointee Katz knows the law, I’m sure. Regrettably, Judge Katz doesn’t understand how some adults, while divorcing, groom their own children to reject and erase the other parent. Katz is one of too many Family Court judges who know the letter of the law yet still don’t recognize the dynamics of parental alienation in their courtroom. They allow themselves to be convinced by the hostile parent who allows (encourages) the children to take sides between mom and dad. I’m sorry to say, Judge Katz has a blind spot in this area of jurisprudence so critical for justice to prevail in the Family Court Division. In large part as a result of Judge Katz’ decision, both my children chose to estrange themselves from me at age 12. As any loving parent would be, I am heartbroken and crestfallen and worried for my kids. But think about it – how does a judge or parent let 12-year-olds take sides in a divorce? (“adultification”) That isn’t a child’s decision. To stop this nonsense, the California State Assembly should pass a law making 50/50 custody/visitation the default until the children are 15. Currently, the law (as I understand it – I’m not an attorney) allows for almost unlimited discretion by the Superior Court judge. And with this discretion, Judge Keri Katz gets a D+ (not passing). There are thousands and thousands of children losing one of their two parents in our courthouses because of judge’s ignorance of parental alienation. Common sense tell us that asking a child to take sides in a divorce is child abuse. It should be common sense to any Superior Court judge – as long as one of the two parents remain hostile, the children are likely being victimized/traumatized. When children then take sides, that’s the fault of the adults not the kids. Kids love both their mom and their dad. They hate fighting and divorce. They don’t understand justice and the rule-of-law. I hope this statement helps fix this terrible societal problem of dividing families as a function of divorce through the family courts. Send a message – make parental alienation unwelcome in the courthouse. Don’t re elect Judge Katz. God bless.


Joanna Piasecki October 10, 2016 at 7:34 pm

It is obvious to me you are extremely hurt by the outcome of your OWN situation. Your comments pertaining to this particular judge are extremely unfair, because you are basing it on one (your) case. More importantly we do not know any of the specifics to your case, nor will we ever know them. It is unfair to make such comments, because when you accuse people of doing something unfairly one way they tend to try to over correct the problem. Meaning if I had my own custody case proceeding under said judge, and they were to decide differently do to unfair posts such as yours there may be small children who suffer greatly. All do to improper decision making because of irresponsible posts such as yours. We should all hope and pray that this judge is fair and unwavering in the confidence she has to make the right decisions for the greater good of all the children’s lives she impacts.
Re elect Judge Katz. God bless.


Joan November 13, 2017 at 11:14 am

“Finally, there’s a cottage industry of people who just hate judges. Try an internet search on a judge and they’ll pop up. Sorting the sore losers from the conspiracy theorists from the people who may actually have been wronged is way above my pay grade. I tried, and lots of “great tips” turned out to be dead ends. People get angry when they lose in court. Sometimes they don’t get over it.”

Where is this cottage industry of people who hate judges? Oh, did you mean the growing number of dissatisfied litigants who get lousy, lazy and entitled judges not doing their jobs? Isn’t it possible that the public, and court users, are just getting sick of watching judges utilize their positions for financial gain and power, and abusing it? That’s not a cottage industry. That’s a good number of people, a mass movement, and growing daily. Wake up!


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