- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 24

San Jose Mercury News: Another flawed judge raises question

It’s time California considered appointing rather than electing judges.

The latest example of conduct more likely to surface when judges are picked by popular election is that of newly elected Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stuart Scott, who is accused of violating the code of ethics on judicial conduct.

Through no fault of their own, voters have little basis upon which to identify the best candidate in a judicial campaign.

Scott’s conduct reportedly ranged from eye-rolling in court to dissing the defense attorney in a private conversation with Deputy District Attorney Kelly Meeker. Mercury News staff writer Tracey Kaplan reported that Meeker told her supervisor about Scott’s conduct, and District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s office promptly followed its ethical obligation to report it to the Public Defender’s Office and the presiding judge.

The Commission on Judicial Performance may review Scott’s conduct.

It may be possible for Scott to recover and adopt appropriate courtroom behavior. He is intelligent and knows the law.

This was not the case with former Judge Diane Ritchie, who was elected in 2008 and unseated last fall by former prosecutor Matt Harris after this newspaper exposed Ritchie’s general incompetence. The courts had struggled for six years to help her learn the job, and ultimately the county bar association declared her unqualified for re-election.

From the perspective of defendants, plaintiffs and attorneys, it’s hard to say which of these cases is worse: an apparently clueless judge or a smart one who telegraphs bias.

Elections are not a good way to choose judges because, unlike candidates for, say, city council, judicial prospects are prohibited from discussing issues that might come before them. It can be hard to get a handle on what they know and how they think. And personality traits that may charm voters do not necessarily equate to great judicial material. That was certainly the case in Ritchie’s original race.

As to Scott’s election last year - he was unopposed for the seat. That just makes it worse. There was no vetting, personality or otherwise, beyond the baseline rating of qualified by the county bar. He self-selected.

When judicial vacancies occur midterm, the governor makes appointments. That has its own peril, since political party can be a litmus test — although local elections can be even costlier political exercises. Beyond that, however, applicants for appointments are thoroughly vetted on a range of judicial qualities. Some attorneys who run in local elections would not make it through the review for an appointment regardless of political party.

Most elected judges turn out fine, even if they weren’t the best qualified candidate. People tend to grow into the office. But as a process for picking a professional for a position of such technical, nuanced requirements, popular election is far from ideal.

Would appointments be better? Is there a middle ground? Californians should be talking about it.

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March 25

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat: Make voting a right, not a privilege

California is no slouch at empowering citizens to become full participants in a competitive democracy. Yet room for improvement remains. Lawmakers should monitor what’s going on to the north. Under a new Oregon law, all eligible Oregonians who get a driver’s license or state identification card through the Department of Motor Vehicles automatically will be registered to vote. No longer will “I forgot to register” be an excuse for not voting there.

Oregon is the first state in the nation to take this approach, and it’s a refreshing change from the march of disenfranchisement underway in much of the country. It has made plain a fundamental schism in electoral philosophies.

A conservative view holds voting as a privilege, something that must be earned. Republican-controlled legislatures therefore erect barriers to voting such as requiring ID cards and shortening the time polls are open. They do so in the name of combating rare or non-existent voter fraud, reasoning that preventing hundreds or thousands of people from voting is worth keeping one or two from maybe cheating. Some people might have to work a little harder than others, but the work makes the privilege of participation all the sweeter.

A progressive view holds voting as a right guaranteed to all adult citizens by the Constitution. The government’s job is not to make voting difficult but to encourage as many people as possible to cast ballots because the more people who vote, the better government will reflect the will of the people.

In Oregon, that means near-universal voter registration and vote-by-mail. In California, it has meant easy access to absentee ballots and measures to encourage competitive electoral districts that make for compellingly interesting races.

Oregon’s one-two punch of motor voter and universal vote-by-mail ensures that most eligible adults will receive a ballot. Candidates risk ignoring groups with historically low voter registration rates at their own peril. California is not quite there, and it should watch to see how Oregon’s motor-voter law fares.

Some Oregonians still will not be registered. Officials estimate the new law will register 300,000 of 800,000 eligible voters who aren’t now registered. The others don’t have driver’s licenses or state ID cards. Other forms of voter outreach will continue.

There are reasonable exceptions to who may register, too. Drivers must present proof of citizenship, thereby ensuring non-citizens do not register. Felons serving time may not vote. And people may opt-out if they truly wish to divorce themselves from the electoral process rather than simply not return a ballot.

That last part is important. Voting is a right, but so is not voting. President Barack Obama recently suggested that mandatory voting might be a good model - at least before his staff walked it back. That runs contrary to the basic notion of individual liberty in America.

Californians deserve an environment in which everyone who can legally vote has the opportunity to do so. Public policy is replete with provisions that benefit one group or another because those groups vote. Elected officials will find it more difficult to ignore historically disenfranchised groups when they might well cast ballots against them next time around.

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March 24

Chico Enterprise-Record: New Chico courthouse brings life to a concept

The Meriam Park subdivision, an idea spawned around the turn of the century, finally is showing signs of life. Now it has its cornerstone - a 67,000-square-foot building that cost $65 million to build.

The impressive new North Butte County Courthouse opened with great fanfare on Thursday.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the chief justice of California’s court system, drove up for the event and was joined by judges, attorneys and a who’s who of the local criminal justice community.

Getting a new courthouse is indeed a big deal that comes around, oh, every 50 years or so. This one replaces a dated building near Chico Junior High School and a courtroom in Paradise in fine style.

Best of all, it was done without grants or tax dollars.

The $65 million came from court user fees, penalties and assessments under Senate Bill 1407.

The legislation was signed into law in 2008. It mostly escaped our attention at the time but looks brilliant now. Instead of using those court fees from things like traffic tickets, divorce settlements and lawsuits as a judicial general fund to be used anywhere, SB 1407 instead earmarked those fees to purchase up to $5 billion in bonds for badly needed courthouse rebuilding projects statewide.

Since the North Butte County Courthouse was already in the planning stages when the legislation was signed, it jumped to the front of the line. It provided several months of employment and spending locally, making it an outstanding economic development project.

Good thing it was near the front of the line, too. In predictable state government fashion, more than $1 billion in court user fees has been “borrowed” by the state for the general fund, or to use to finance other court operations. Many projects statewide have been delayed as the court construction money was used elsewhere.

Butte County has its upgrade, however, and not only has that project fed the local economy, but it will greatly help the Meriam Park subdivision as well.

Meriam Park is a 247.5-acre rectangle of land extending northwest from the corner of 20th Street and Bruce Road. It was originally owned by Enloe Medical Center.

The hospital considered building a new campus there before deciding to expand in its current location. That’s when it sold the vacant land in southeast Chico to Tom DiGiovanni, the “new urbanist” behind Doe Mill Neighborhood.

DiGiovanni bought it for roughly $18 million. It was the largest undeveloped parcel within city limits. DiGiovanni called it Meriam Park, after former Mayor Ted Meriam.

The developer thought of it as a canvas for a new self-contained walkable neighborhood, with everything from homes to parks to a small commercial district and public gathering places. His hope was people who lived there wouldn’t have to leave every time they needed something.

Then the recession hit. Nothing was done on the land for a decade. Finally, an affordable housing complex sprang up, then a neighborhood park.

DiGiovanni knew all along he needed a centerpiece. There was talk of a baseball stadium. Others tossed out ideas: an aquatic center, a high school, a community center, a European-style piazza …

Instead, the centerpiece became the courthouse, which worked out well for DiGiovanni because if there’s one thing you can count on, even in a recession, it’s government spending. That courthouse in turn should create plenty of business opportunities nearby. All of those attorneys, defendants and people stuck with jury duty need someplace to eat, drink and find reading material to kill the long waits.

It’s a good and fortuitous deal for the local economy, and a nice addition to the neighborhood. How ironic that it’s a place most Chicoans welcome, while at the same time a place they’d like to avoid.

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March 20

Riverside Press-Enterprise: Moving forward on body cameras

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is moving forward with its plan to distribute body cameras at the Jurupa Valley station, despite ongoing union challenges. While it is certainly true that clear policies and procedures governing the use of the devices ought to be developed, it is also true that the use of body cameras is voluntary.

The truth is that deputies have been using body cameras for some time, largely informally and completely voluntarily. In large part this is because, more often than not, body cameras protect officers as much, or more, than they protect the public.

The presence of cameras deters misbehavior and malicious complaints, thereby reducing the need for uses of force while providing a clearer picture of what transpires in law enforcement engagements.

Deputies have even purchased their own devices and seem largely receptive to incorporating the devices into their work.

The department, however, has been appropriately cautious about taking a plunge into using body cameras without carefully investigating best practices. Issues such as data storage and retrieval have been one of the larger hurdles to overcome.

In November, the department received approval from the Board of Supervisors to purchase cameras for a planned testing phase at the Jurupa Valley station. The department has also sorted out a tentative data storage plan.

The Riverside Sheriffs’ Association filed a lawsuit in January, alleging that voluntary testing cannot continue without formal negotiation between the union and the Sheriff’s Department. In our discussion with the law firm representing the union, it became apparent that the union didn’t have an explanation for why it didn’t object to voluntary testing in years past.

Our discussions with Sheriff Stan Sniff lead us to believe the department is taking appropriate action.

“This next phase of the ongoing testing program will help the department continue evaluating how best to equip deputies in other communities of Riverside County and in our other areas of operation, once this Jurupa Valley test phase is completed,” reads a Monday press release.

This test phase is expected to last between 90 and 180 days. Upon completion, input will be sought from the various labor units and the department will continue to research what other departments are doing.

While we’d like to see both sides of the lawsuit come to a fair and reasonable agreement, we also believe it is important that the department test these devices in the interest of transparency and public trust.

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March 24

Los Angeles Daily News: AEG should quit playing so many games

AEG’s efforts to thwart rival NFL stadium plans in Carson and Inglewood are getting a little embarrassing.

It’s a blatant bullying tactic among big-money players as the possibility of a Los Angeles team looms ever closer.

But when it comes to the company’s criticism of a proposed stadium in Carson, it makes a good point.

With competition heating up, AEG announced earlier this month that it would abandon plans to build Farmer’s Field in downtown Los Angeles,

That’s despite spending five years and $50 million in plans to attract an NFL team and build a stadium downtown that still has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti.

But that hasn’t stopped AEG from continuing its campaign to undermine two other plans, one by St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke and the other by the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

First, there was a strange report commissioned by the entertainment and sports giant warning that the stadium proposed by Kroenke in Inglewood posed a terrorist threat.

Then there was the six-page letter written to Carson Mayor Jim Dear.

Written by former secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, the report cautions that the Inglewood stadium, which is more than two miles from Los Angeles International Airport, was particularly vulnerable because low-flying planes could be shot down by rocket-propelled grenades and portable air defense systems.

The alarmist 14-page report by Ridge, now a security consultant, invoked al-Qaida and the missing Malaysia airline in making its case against the 80,000-seat stadium. It was a lot of hot air.

Hollywood Park sat on the very site for decades and nobody seemed to be worried about the folks betting on horses.

Oh, the report warns the NFL should think twice and Inglewood should consider the costs it would impose on the city.

It states, “It is not clear why the National Football League and local leaders would consider increasing community, regional, and their own risk by placing a major NFL stadium with complex security concerns in such close proximity to the airport.”

The biggest problem for AEG with the other stadium proposals is that somebody one-upped them, hurting the potential for a massive expansion of the company in the country’s second largest media market.

Still, AEG isn’t all bluster. In a letter to Mayor Dear, a top executive for the company chided the city for getting too giddy about the project and fast-tracking it without the proper input and environmental review - cautions this editorial board had expressed about the Inglewood project.

That, he said, will open up the project to litigation. He’s right, although his suggestion for fixing this also sounds a lot like AEG taking another self-interested position.

AEG owns StubHub Stadium in Carson and the Galaxy soccer team that plays there, and it’s using its properties to throw its weight around with the mayor and council. That’s what big companies do.

While it’s clear there are even greater fortunes at stake for the big companies, NFL owners and politicians who drool over stadiums, any benefits for residents and taxpayers are less obvious, and the downsides are downplayed.

That’s why it pays to slow down and make sure the communities involved reap some rewards of their own.

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March 24

U-T San Diego: SeaWorld has more credibility than PETA

For 51 years, probably no organization in San Diego has done more to rescue and protect ocean wildlife than SeaWorld. The latest example is the massive effort SeaWorld has undertaken to save sea lion pups mysteriously stranded on our beaches, helping more than 540 so far this year. The park is also an important part of the San Diego tourist economy, attracting more than 4 million visitors a year, and has been a good corporate citizen.

But SeaWorld has taken a beating at the hands of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which cites some terrible accidents to make a broad argument that SeaWorld systematically and knowingly mistreats its killer whales. That’s nonsense, as illustrated by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ announcement that SeaWorld’s San Diego park and two of its other facilities have been granted accreditation after an independent review found they met high standards. We’re glad to hear SeaWorld is fighting back against PETA with an advertising campaign that provides a more accurate view of how it operates.

What hasn’t gotten enough attention is PETA’s record of dishonesty in targeting institutions that use animals in ways it doesn’t like. Even if SeaWorld had a perfect record of animal stewardship, PETA would want to destroy it. This matters when considering PETA’s extreme claims.

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