SAN DIEGO -
Story by: Ryann Grochowski, Investigative Newsource
Judicial elections are usually small-money, low-key races, but the race for seat 25 is veering onto another course.
There has been a lawsuit over ballot language and a dust-up over comments one candidate made on his Facebook page about court cases. Local tea parties have endorsed, illegal immigration has a role and the who's who of the legal community is fired up.
Vying for a seat on the Superior Court bench is veteran prosecutor Robert Amador who has judges, lawyers, Democrats and Republicans on his side. His opponent is Jim Miller Jr., a private practitioner from El Cajon who touts his diverse legal experience and conservative credentials.
Who to vote for? The county bar association is pressing to be the credible voice. It rated Amador well qualified and Miller not qualified. Some of the most high-profile legal names in the county are urging voters to pay attention to the bar. Miller and the Republican Party, though, say not so fast: there is more to the story.
A crowd gathered early one Monday evening late last month to eat hors d'oeuvres, drink cocktails and write checks for Amador.
There was an urgency among the dozens of lawyers and judges. They said they want to ensure voters don't make the same mistake they made in June: electing a candidate the county bar association deemed as "lacking qualifications."
"I'm as guilty as probably a lot of us in this room for taking that race for granted," county Sheriff William Gore told the crowd. "And we saw what happened. We can't let that happen again."
"What happened" was the election of Gary Kreep, a conservative, constitutional lawyer in private practice and member of the "birther" movement. He beat prosecutor Garland Peed by less than 2,000 votes.
That race for county judge became known across the country as the one with the funny name: Kreep versus Peed. National political commentator Rachel Maddow came to tears with laughter as she described it.
But the people at the fundraiser for deputy district attorney Amador weren't laughing.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told the group: "I think what we are seeing now is an assault on the judiciary."
In California, Superior Court is the official name for the county-level court that presides over civil, criminal, family, juvenile and probate cases. Superior Court judges can decide life in prison, they can assess millions of dollars in damages and they can decide custody of children.
There are more than 110 active Superior Court judges in San Diego County. Some are appointed by the governor and then subject to election by the voters. Others, like Amador and Miller, run for an open seat outright. Judges serve six-year terms.
Amador, who is 55 and a 29-year deputy district attorney, says he is the best candidate because he has proven himself in tough situations, including the prosecution of a death penalty case. By his count, he has handled more than 100 jury trials and 250 court trials. He admits to a lack of experience in the civil realm, but believes his criminal law expertise carries over to civil cases.
"I think until you've actually done a lot of things in the criminal justice system, you're not really prepared to be a judge," he said.
Amador and his wife have four children. Their oldest son is 46, one of two children the Amadors took in from foster care 32 years ago.
Miller, 42, is an attorney in El Cajon specializing in family law, a practice he took over after his father's unexpected death in 2009. Miller's legal experience is broad; he emphasizes his work in the five areas of the county court. He touts his "outsider" status with pride. He believes his civil law background is sorely needed in courts overrun with judges who were once prosecutors and other government attorneys.
"They don't want somebody coming in who's going to upset their apple cart," he said.
Miller and his wife have four children. His eldest stepdaughters graduated from his alma mater, Valhalla High School in El Cajon.
The contentiousness of this race began before the June primary. While judicial races are nonpartisan and generally are not run on political issues or positions, it is not unusual for candidates to highlight partisan endorsements.
A registered Republican, Amador has some support from the other side -- the county Democratic party, while not endorsing Amador, passed a resolution advising Democrats not to vote for Miller. His list of endorsements includes high-profile members of both parties, as well as independents.
Miller is backed by the county and state Republican Party, the Lincoln Club of San Diego and many local tea party groups, including the Chula Vista Patriots and the Fallbrook Tea Party. Miller said he was happy to see Kreep, a tea party-backed constitutional lawyer who does not believe President Obama is a U.S. citizen, elected to the bench.
Immigration, though not a subject within the purview of Superior Court judges, has played a part in Miller's campaign. Former Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, primary sponsor of SB 1070, the state's strict anti-illegal immigration bill, appeared at a fundraiser for Miller in April.
And on a radio talk show in April, Miller called the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, the county's Latino bar association that endorsed Amador, a "race-based" organization that is involved with larger Mexican nationalist groups.
Amador took issue with the statement, as did Rafael Castellanos, political affairs director for San Diego La Raza, who said Miller's characterization was incorrect.
"The bottom line is, whenever folks use the word ‘la raza' to define our group they're just exhibiting a complete ignorance of the facts," Castellanos said, expressing concern about the treatment of Latinos who would appear before Miller if he is elected.
"Should they expect that (judges) will stereotype them like they are stereotyping our organization?," he asked. "There's a reason that the lady of justice has a blindfold. We cannot have Superior Court judges that have stereotyped groups."
Miller served as a pro-tem, or fill-in, judge for the Superior Court since 2008, but was removed from the list this spring. The executive office of the Superior Court would not release details on Miller's removal.
"I would love for somebody to give me a straight answer, but I don't care," he said. "In the end, I've given an awful lot of hours and handled hundreds of cases as a judge pro-tem."
Amador filed a lawsuit before the primary, challenging Miller's qualifications on his ballot and candidate statements. A judge ruled largely in Miller's favor but required some wording changes. Also before the primary, East County Magazine excerpted several Facebook posts from Miller, including one where he called a California Highway Patrol officer involved with a case a "jerk" who "lie[d] his butt off to get a conviction."
Miller said he was just expressing his First Amendment rights to speech. He didn't name names, he said. Regardless, "the stodgy fuddy-duddies," as he called some members of the bench, were upset.
As of June 30, the most recent data available, Amador has raised about $81,000 to Miller's $51,000. George Schaefer, also a prosecutor rated well-qualified by the bar, who came in third in the primary, reported raising about $61,000. The three candidates largely spent money on mailers and other forms of advertising in the primary. The next filing deadline is Oct. 5.
Both Amador and Miller held campaign events open to Investigative Newsource-KPBS reporters during the last two weeks of August. The difference was stark. At the Monday night event at Athens Market in downtown San Diego, about 75 people people gathered to support Amador.
Some of the big names in attendance included Dumanis, Gore and Superior Court Judge Joan Weber.
"(Amador) tried a very complicated murder trial in my courtroom, so I've seen first-hand what an excellent trial lawyer he is," Weber said. "He has a perfect command of the rules of evidence. He's exactly what we would be looking for in a judicial candidate."
How can voters decide on a candidate for judge? Because the candidates are generally unknown outside legal circles, the San Diego Bar Association ratings take center stage.
Since 1978, the association has put together a judicial evaluation committee to interview and rate the candidates as "well-qualified," "qualified" or "lacking qualifications." Bar President Marvin Mizell said the association's ratings are meant to give voters guidance. "We do it as a public service," he said.
The evaluation committee of 21 volunteer lawyers and retired judges receive input from confidential questionnaires filled out by hundreds of attorneys and personal reflections written by the candidates. Five-person subcommittees then conduct interviews with the candidates. The subcommittees suggest a candidate's rating, and the entire committee votes on that rating. Candidates are rated on their own merits; that is, they are not compared to each other when evaluated.
Candidates are evaluated on 19 qualities, including judicial temperament, trial experience, fairness and objectivity, and professional reputation. A deficiency in just one category warrants a "lacking qualifications" rating, Mizell said. Specific details are not released to the public.
Amador and his supporters point to the importance of the ratings.
"These (bar association members) are the people that work with these lawyers every day," Gore said. "They know them. They know them in the courtroom, they know them outside the courtroom. It's something that I take very seriously, and I think everybody should take seriously."
Miller -- like Kreep -- dismisses the ratings as biased and politically motivated. He believes the committee that determines the ratings will never fairly assess a private practicing, Republican-backed candidate. When he ran for judge in 2010 -- narrowly losing to a prosecutor -- Miller was also rated as lacking qualifications.
This time, Miller contends, the outcome was once again stacked against him: four out of five members of his subcommittee were government attorneys.
"(The association) has been the judgemakers for about 30 years in San Diego," Miller said. "They're not very happy with the fact that some people outside their chosen circle have been successful so far."
Tony Krvaric, the head of the county Republican Party, who endorsed Miller, said the bar association's ratings have historically been unkind to Republican candidates.
"We reject the San Diego County Bar Association's judicial ratings as, in our opinion, their process and criteria are deliberately rigged against conservatives, and have been for decades, which is probably why they don't disclose how ratings are arrived at," Krvaric said in an e-mail.
Not true, said Mizell. This year's full committee had 15 civil lawyers on it, he said, and candidates unhappy with their rating can appeal to the entire committee to have it changed. The bar confirmed that Miller received an appeal, but his rating stood.
"I disagree with Mr. Miller," Mizell said. "I know he's upset over his rating but I disagree."
The 10News I-Team and KPBS collaborated on this investigation.