by Judy Hodgson
Voters in California will be treated to a mercifully short presidential primary season this year. On March 26 -- rather than the traditional first Tuesday in June -- voters will select party nominees for U.S. President, Congress, and state Assembly.
In Humboldt County, nonpartisan races to be held that day include three of the five county supervisorial districts -- 1st, 2nd and 3rd -- and the municipal court judgeship for northern Humboldt County.
"In my opinion, the most important election this year is for judge for my district," said Judge Ron Rowland, who is currently on medical leave, in an interview last month.
That may be an overstatement, but the vote for judge will certainly have long-lasting results. The five candidates are relatively young, and -- once elected -- judges are seldom challenged for reelection by attorneys who must practice before them.
Things have changed a lot since 1971, when Rowland first took the bench. In fact, when Rowland challenged then-incumbent Justice Court Judge Ernest Sweet, he wasn't even an attorney.
"I graduated from Hoopa High School, did a stint in the Navy and then was a cop in Arcata for 10 years," he said. He did have to take and pass a state qualifying exam in those days for non-attorney judges.
Later, the state said all judges must be attorneys with five years of experience, forcing Rowland to undertake a course of self-study to prepare for the state bar examination.
"In 1975 I took an apartment in San Francisco and holed up for four months to study. I knew that if I didn't pass, in '76 I was out of there."
He did pass and has been serving ever since.
Rowland said he had planned to retire in three more years when he turns 60, but a heart problem last August forced him to take medical leave and to apply for disability.
Since then, municipal court judges Bruce Watson, elected just two years ago, and John Morrison, who returned from retirement to help out, have been handling much of Rowland's caseload. In addition, southern Humboldt Municipal Court Judge Dominic Banducci has been travelling to Hoopa to hear cases there in addition to his own district.
In recent years the state has been taking steps to streamline the court system. To alleviate crowded courtrooms and overloaded calendars, the Judicial Council established a system of cross-assignments. Municipal court judges -- who traditionally hear misdemeanor cases, preliminaries and civil lawsuits up to $25,000 in their own courtrooms -- can now be assigned to sit for superior court trials as needed. (They already sentence felons whose cases are settled prior to trial at the municipal court level.)
Occasionally, the reverse happens. Just last month, Municipal Court Judge Watson was hearing juvenile matters in Superior Court and Superior Court J. Michael Brown had a trial ready to go that was settled at the last minute. That day, he heard misdemeanor matters.
In Humboldt County, the northern and southern justice courts were upgraded to municipal courts two years ago and the Arcata court was moved into the County Courthouse in Eureka in December. (Fortuna successfully fought the county Board of Supervisors to keep that court there.)
All municipal and superior court clerks have been combined into one staff under the coordination of a court administrator hired last fall. Eventually, the courts will use a unified numbering system to track all cases.
The court streamlining process has not taken place without glitches. One attorney complained that he is often assigned to appear on three or four different cases in a single day.
"There was some beauty to the old system," he said, with a touch of sarcasm.
The local legal community is expecting to hear soon who will be appointed to the Eureka Municipal Court bench, a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Morrison. There is some speculation, too, that Gov. Wilson may try to upgrade that court to a superior court when he makes the appointment.
Judge Rowland said he expects to hear any day if his disability is granted. However, a new judge will be sworn in next January regardless.
"I guess I think of myself as more of a scholar," said the teacher-turned-attorney. "What I look for in a judge is someone who can handle a courtroom, is reasonably intelligent, and can apply the law properly."
Having a thorough knowledge of due process, being able to handle Constitutional questions, and applying the law correctly, she said, "are even more important than day-to-day prosecutorial experience."
"Otherwise, you're just going to be reversed on appeal," she explained.
Miles' legal career began with a "trial by fire" -- she was an attorney on the controversial G-O Road case involving Native American burial grounds. That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Miles was born and raised in Arcata. She earned a master degree in psychology prior to attending law school. She was admitted to the bar in 1980 and has been the directing attorney for California Indian Legal Services since 1982.
Rob Wade took an unusual path to his candidacy for municipal court judge.
Most young attorneys began their careers as a public defender or deputy district attorney then move on to private practice -- and, they hope, a larger paycheck. Wade did it backwards.
"It takes about five years to build a private practice," Wade said. "I did that. I had a good practice" in San Rafael before joining the Humboldt County District Attorney's office in 1986. After the birth of his daughter, he said, he wanted to live in a place that was more conducive to child-rearing and he wanted even more time in the courtroom.
He said he had a case soon after law school that went to trial and up on appeal to the state Supreme Court. "After that, I was hooked. I knew I right away I wanted to be a trial attorney."
"My strength is obviously criminal law. I am probably more familiar with and have spent more time in the courtroom than any of the other candidates," he said.
During Wade's 10 years as a deputy district attorney, he took on murder cases, drug cases and other serious felonies. He headed a special unit to prosecute child molesters and is lead prosecutor with the special unit targeting narcotics dealers.
Victor Schaub has been a practicing attorney longer than any of the other candidates -- 23 years. However, he said, it is the breadth of his "nonlegal experiences -- community and public service," that qualifies him as the best candidate for judge.
Schaub has handled some felony criminal defense for clients over the years, but much of his courtroom time has been spent on business, labor and family law -- everything from adoption and guardianship, to employment, insurance, probate and real estate.
"I feel that beside the law, judges need other experiences," he said. "I have worked in the woods, taught political science and U.S. history. I've served on the Humboldt County Advisory Committee for Drug Abuse, the Humboldt Child Care Council, the Northcoast Mental Health Clinic Board, the Senior Resource Center ..."
His public service also includes serving as mayor of Arcata from 1990-1995, planning commission member, and he has been active in the county and state Democratic Central Committees.
Schaub was born in Alhambra, Calif., began practice in Arcata in 1974 after two years in private practice in Hawaii.
Last month at a candidates forum sponsored by the Trinidad Chamber of Commerce, Schaub said as a judge he "would be very tough on continuances, encourage arbitration, and come prepared to court.
"There's a certain amount of frustration attorneys experience," Schaub said, when a judge come to a settlement conference and begins by saying, "Well, counsel, what's this case all about?"
Joyce Hinrichs probably has never been accused of being unprepared.
A superachiever since grade school, Hinrichs' resumé reads like this: 4-H County All-Star; valedictorian of Fortuna High School, 1976; B.A., cum laude, University of the Pacific, 1980; law degree, 1983; three years with the district attorney's office; and, private practice since 1986 with the law firm of W.G. Watson, Jr., her father-in-law.
She is married to fellow attorney, Steve Watson, whose brother is Municipal Court Judge Bruce Watson.
Hinrichs has served on various state bar committees, as a judge pro tem for municipal and justice courts, and as a member of the Humboldt County Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission.
She is a member of Sunrise Rotary, Humboldt Educare board, Humboldt Sponsors and the American Association of University Women, and she is a former board member for the Humboldt County Rape Crisis Team and the Humboldt Family Service Center.
"I think what I offer is a certain life philosophy," she told the Trinidad forum. "I am very family-oriented and committed. What I see is a need for significant consequences the first time (an offender) comes before the court."
Hinrichs said she "knows both sides of the law, as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor."
Like her brother-in-law, if she becomes judge, Hinrichs would have to excuse herself from cases involving her former law firm.
"In Bruce's case, there hasn't been a single time the court or a client has been inconvenienced" because of a case being reassigned.
"Judge Morrison's brother is an attorney and so is his mother. It was never a problem," Hinrichs said.
Hinrichs has already lined up a long list of backers in her bid for judge, including Judge Rowland.
Timothy Gray said he might be short on prosecutorial experience, but he makes up for in the courtroom time.
"I have had over 100 jury trials, all the way up to the federal court of appeals," said the Eureka attorney.
Gray passed the state bar in 1979 and was in private practice from 1981-85 before joining the Humboldt County Public Defender's office. He returned to private practice in 1992 as a sole practitioner.
"Criminal law, as a defense attorney, is certainly my strongest suit," Gray said. "I've done family law, conservatorships, juvenile court cases, misdemeanor and felonies of all types."
Gray also cites his nonlegal experience as a strength in running for judge. He attended high school at a military academy in San Francisco, worked for a time in lumber mills in Mendocino, and was a carpenter. When he came to Humboldt in 1980, his original intention was to write a book.
One superior court judge called the current field of candidates "a very, very strong one."
In fact, it is likely that no one will receive a simple majority on March 26. If that is the case, the top two candidates will face off in the November.
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