by Rosemary Edmiston

Christopher Wilson, Eris Wagner, Jeanne Tunison-Campbell

When former Deputy District Attorney Jeanne Tunison-Campbell announced she would run for the Superior Court seat held for 17 years by John Buffington, it was the second time in memory a seated jurist had faced an election-year challenge in this county.

The first time was two years ago when Tunison-Campbell challenged the late Judge William F. Ferroggiaro. She was disqualified from that race because her tenure as an attorney fell just shy of the 10 years required for a seat on the bench.

Buffington has since announced he would retire at the end of the year. With that announcement two attorneys stepped forward to challenge Tunison-Campbell -- Eris Wagner and Christopher Wilson.

Had Buffington remained in the race, neither challenger would have entered the competition, they said. The primary is June 2.

"I would not run against any of the sitting judges," Wagner said. "I respect them all and I think they're doing a decent job for the most part."

Tunison-Campbell disagrees. She made the unusual move to challenge Ferroggiaro and Buffington because, she said, they had made serious errors on the bench.

"I philosophically believe that judges need to follow the law and it was my observation that there were two departments that didn't seem to follow that philosophy," she said, citing cases that had been reversed on appeal.

For that opinion Tunison-Campbell has been widely criticized within the legal community.

"I know that there's always resistance to change. I'm change," she said.

What also sets Tunison-Campbell apart is that she is a relative newcomer to the county.

Wilson, 40, was born in Eureka and graduated from Eureka High School. Wagner, 49, is a fourth-generation Humboldt County native. Both have been members of the State Bar of California for 14 years, while Tunison-Campbell has 12 years.

Wilson's career began in Bend., Ore., after he received his law degree in 1984 from the University of Oregon Law School. He predominantly handled criminal cases there, returning to Humboldt County in 1988 and joining the law firm of John H. Young and Associates. In 1992 he opened his own firm, bringing with him a county contract to represent indigent criminal clients who have a conflict with the Public Defender's Office.

It has afforded his firm -- which includes attorneys Russ Clanton and Mark Hapgood -- the opportunity to handle numerous high-profile felony cases.

"I've been working as a trial attorney for a decade and a half approximately so I appear in court every day. That's what I do," said Wilson, who believes that trial experience is an important prerequisite for the bench.

Among the candidates, Wilson has continuously practiced law the longest, he said. Aside from criminal, he handles civil and family law cases and recently worked in the family court as a temporary judge. He continues to practice law full time while running for the bench, which has been challenging, he said.

"I've earned something in the last decade ... respect, trust. A judge should be someone who is well respected in the community. When that person makes a decision it's got to command respect," he said.

Tunison-Campbell also has a criminal law background, but on the other side of the aisle. She worked for six years as a Humboldt County deputy district attorney until resigning one year ago during a dispute with her boss, District Attorney Terry Farmer.

As a prosecutor she tried a variety of cases -- from serious felonies to misdemeanor offenses -- and for a three-year period went from one trial to the next without a break, she said.

Born in Illinois and raised in Santa Cruz, Tunison-Campbell was a single mother when she attended Empire School of Law at night, earning her juris doctorate in 1985. She opened a private practice in Sonoma County in 1986, representing juvenile offenders for the county and handling civil cases.

Her practice was sued twice -- for alleged malpractice and for damages the plaintiffs said were incurred when Tunison-Campbell was representing a client embroiled in a business ownership dispute. The latter case was dismissed and the malpractice suit was the result of a paperwork error, Tunison-Campbell said.

Both lawsuits were "frivolous," she said, and taught her valuable lessons.

The malpractice suit alleges that Tunison-Campbell failed to take action on a personal injury claim in the required time period. But Tunison-Campbell said she told her client she would not take the case and simply failed to send a confirmation letter as required by law.

The case was settled out of court and the judgment sealed. Tunison-Campbell said the damages were less than $5,000, which she paid out of pocket because her malpractice insurance deductible was at least $10,000.

"I think that any lawyer that's in private practice for any length of time is going to be sued at some point," she said.

Tunison-Campbell moved to Humboldt County to take the job with the District Attorney's Office because she wanted to get back into the courtroom. She resigned last year after losing a controversial sexual molestation trial.

The jury's decision to acquit and the outcry from the community prompted other alleged molestation victims in separate cases to refuse to take the stand for fear of media reprisal, Tunison-Campbell said. She asked Farmer to issue a post-trial press release expressing support for the victims. When he refused, Tunison-Campbell took it upon herself to issue a statement.

"I have always thought that it's pretty important if you work for someone that you kind of keep the company line and I couldn't do that any more, so I left," she said. "The leaving was very much my choice."

Farmer said Tunison-Campbell was given the option to resign or be terminated.

Since her resignation Tunison-Campbell has done some minor legal work, but spends most of her time working on the campaign, she said.

Wagner has also cut down on legal work to campaign. Her election platform is built around her extensive work with juvenile wards of the court. In 1987 she accepted a court contract to represent abused and neglected children.

"My true passion ... is child advocacy law and family law in general," she said. In fact, 70 percent of her experience is in that field.

Wagner was also a single mother when she graduated from the University of California, Davis, Law School School in 1983. She joined the Eureka law firm of Corbett, Roberts & Hill that same year and opened her own practice in 1984.

She helped found a chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, as well as the Center for Child Advocacy. She has taught English and technical writing at Humboldt State University and real estate at College of the Redwoods. And she continues to serve as chief financial officer for her husband's medical practice, Humboldt Occupational and Environmental Medical Group in Eureka.

The outgoing judge, Buffington, has presided over the family court in Eureka for several years. He spearheaded efforts to bolster the department so that all legal matters dealing with families -- from divorce to child abuse -- could be handled in one department.

Wagner says whomever is elected will serve in that position for years to come. But Wilson and Tunison-Campbell disagree. The seat, they say, will rotate after two years.

The decision may ultimately lie with Judge W. Bruce Watson, who will take over as presiding judge from Buffington.

While Watson said that it is "highly likely" the victor will take over the family court for three years, the seat will indeed rotate.

"What we have is a specialized court with family law and it's just that perhaps a two-year rotation is too quick," he said.

Wagner said she would be an ideal judge for the family court, but she is prepared to preside over any of the seven departments, including the criminal and civil divisions, she said.

"The fact that I happen to have a lot of experience in family law and that happens to be the seat that's being vacated I think makes me a good candidate for that position. But it's not nearly as important as what I consider to be my ability to set aside my own view of the world and listen carefully to the facts," she said.

Some questions have been raised as to whether Wagner is healthy enough to take on the pressure that comes with the bench.

"I consider myself in excellent health," she countered.

She acknowledged that a genetic heart problem caused her difficulty a few years back, but it has since been treated and poses no threat, she said.

"I feel like a million bucks," she said.

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