Bar Association assessments defining factor in county judicial races
Winning candidates will be elected to six-year terms as Superior Court judges
By Paul Sisolak 05/20/2010
Two judicial races for Ventura County Superior Court have begun to take further shape, after the release last week of peer review assessments rating the qualifications of each candidate.
In the Ventura County Bar Association’s 13-member Judicial Evaluations Committee ratings report from May 12, four candidates — Gay Conroy, Robert Taylor, Ryan Wright and Lela Henke-Dobroth — were rated on criteria such as professional experience, professional ability, professional temperament, judicial temperament and work ethic/resource management.
Conroy, an incumbent judge seeking re-election to the court’s Office 10, was rated “Exceptionally Well Qualified.” Her opponent, local attorney Robert Taylor, was rated “Not Qualified.”
The committee also evaluated two contenders for the Office 1 race, rating Ryan Wright, a senior deputy district attorney, as “Qualified,” and former prosecutor Lela Henke-Dobroth as “Not Qualified.”
The ratings are issued by the evaluations committee for any judicial candidate seeking either election or an appointment by the governor. Though it’s standard practice for the bar association’s attorneys, the most recent evaluation results have served to make at least one race more hotly contested.
In addition to crying foul on his low rating, Taylor has criticized the association for not revealing in its review of Conroy that it published a feature article last year on the judge. Taylor calls it an unfair bias.
“If you’re going to try and influence voters, tell them, ‘By the way, last August we published a story saying how much we like his opponent,’ ” Taylor said.
Taylor said he believes that the bar association issued him a poor review because he is not a member.
“I don’t think anyone disputes my credentials,” he said. “I’m just simply not one of them.”
Taylor, wants to see term limits imposed on judges and added technological advancements inside the courtroom. He’s acknowledged the difficulty of trying to unseat an incumbent judge, especially one with Conroy’s credentials and popularity in Ventura’s legal community.
Conroy has the backing of every current sitting judge on the Ventura County bench, as well as endorsements from Assemblyman Pedro Nava and retired District Attorney Michael Bradbury. Her first judicial term started in July 2008 when she was appointed by the governor; prior to that, she spent two years as a court commissioner.
Conroy says she has never met Taylor and surmised that her 28-year legal career was something he wishes to challenge.
“There’s not a sitting judge who ever remembers seeing him,” she said.
State law requires each appointed judge to run for election at the close of his or her first term. Conroy, who handles family law matters, says that if she’s elected, she’d like to provide better options for people with no legal representation in the courtroom.
“If I were to rely on anything, it would be my working and trying to provide access to the self-represented litigants,” she said. “It’s a question of giving them access to a system that’s so foreign to them. Whether you have an attorney or not, you should be entitled to the same form of justice.”
Conroy says this is something she’d like to solve. Seventy to 80 percent of litigants are self-represented, according to the judge, unable to afford an attorney for various reasons.
“It’s always been a problem. It’s gotten worse in the last few years because of the economy,” said Conroy. “In many minds, there’s this perception that family law is simple when it’s really very complex, so people think they can do it on their own. But it’s mostly money.”
Like Conroy, Henke-Dobroth is also supported by numerous current judges and former District Attorney Bradbury, as well as the California Republican Assembly and Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs Association. It’s the overwhelming support, she said, that makes the evaluation committee’s poor review of her difficult to understand.
“I don’t disagree with (the committee) finding me very qualified on experience and my professional background,” she said. “What was shocking to me and other people was finding I was not qualified based on judicial temperament. That still is baffling to me.”
Henke-Dobroth, who became an attorney in 1981, is looking to succeed her former husband, Judge John Dobroth, who is retiring in December.
“Becoming a member of the bench is something I’d thought about for years,” she said. “It just seemed like the appropriate, right time.”
Not unlike the Office 10 race, Henke-Dobroth and Wright had previously engaged in a pointed debate over Henke-Dobroth’s alleged misuse of her “retired prosecutor” title. Wright, apparently, had claimed that Henke-Dobroth was not retired because she still maintains a private practice.
But according to Henke-Dobroth, because she is no longer a prosecuting district attorney, a title she held for 23 years, the title is appropriate. A court ruled in her favor.
Wright has law enforcement in his corner, along with County Supervisor Kathy Long and current District Attorney Greg Totten, who’ve also endorsed the 13-year deputy district attorney.
“He is, in every respect, a prosecutor’s prosecutor, principled, determined and hardworking,” Totten said of Wright this week. “He has the integrity and the experience and the temperament to be a truly outstanding judge.”
Wright attributes the support from police officials to his strong platform advocating for public safety.
“We have to keep the community safe. That’s the ultimate priority,” Wright said. “I think, as judges, looking into the future we’re going to have to be open to alternative courts, thinking a little bit outside the box.”
Above all, Wright believes his objectivity, and his ability to relate to people involved in courtroom cases, qualify him for the judicial post.
“I appeal to everybody. I want to be a fair person. I think those are things people pick up on,” he said. “To the people who are involved in a case, it’s the most important thing in their lives. I want to treat every single person like that, and I recognize that.”
The remaining 10 judges up for re-election are running unopposed.