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Respected judge’s loss retriggers retention debate

Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Dzintra Janavs

An anomaly in judicial elections has rekindled a statewide debate about the way judges are elected in California. In the June 6 election, veteran jurist Dzintra Janavs, who was rated “exceptionally well qualified” by the Los Angeles Bar Association, lost her seat on the Superior Court bench to Lynn Olson, an on-again, off-again active attorney who most recently stopped practicing to help her husband open and run a Manhattan Beach bagel shop. Olson, who reactivated her bar membership seven months ago after seven years as “inactive,” was rated “not qualified” by the bar association after declining the bar’s invitation to be interviewed.

“I can tell you that there’s overwhelming dismay about (Janavs’) defeat,” said California Judges Association President Terry Fried-man, who also is a Los Angeles superior court judge. “She is a very experienced, highly qualified, highly respected judge, and nothing in the campaign raised even an iota of a reason why she should not be re-elected.”

If there is a positive element in the surprise loss, Friedman said, it is that the outcome has prompted “a useful and important discussion about whether alternative selective mechanisms ought to be adopted.”

It’s a rare occurrence when a sitting judge is even challenged, much less defeated, in an election. Immediately after the vote was announced, members of the legal community, including Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and a large number of judges, expressed outrage about the ouster and lobbied for Janavs’ reappointment.

Three days after the election, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced that he would reappoint the 69-year-old jurist.

“Judge Janavs has a long and distinguished record as a judge and deserves to continue serving the people of Los Angeles. I can relate to the problem of having a name that is hard to pronounce,” he said in a written statement, referring to reports that voters may have been put off by Janavs’ foreign-sounding name. “This unfortunate result should not rob California of a fine jurist, and I intend to reappoint her to the L.A. Superior Court as soon as she completes the paperwork.”

The judges and many other Janavs supporters expressed relief about the reappointment, but opponents of the 20-year jurist offered a different point of view of the election, in which Janavs was outspent more than two-to-one by her opponent.

“I thought it demonstrated that even judges can be held accountable for their behavior, and that people who feel that they have been poorly served by the judicial system can organize and reform that system,” Brian Creech wrote in a letter to the editor at the legal newspaper, the Daily Journal. Creech said he was an evicted tenant of a Venice apartment building that Janavs declined to give historical status.

“Incumbency presupposes they’ve been okay, which may or may not be the case,” said Cliff Meneken, who unsuccessfully challenged Marin County Superior Court Judge John Sutro in the June contest. “These are not gods on high who have some greater knowledge . . . A lot of these judges deserve to be challenged.”

Sutro, who said he was put in an “untenable position” by having to campaign and raise money, suggested that retention elections, like those for state appellate and supreme court justices, might be a “happy medium” between the extremes of contests pitting sitting judges against challengers and the federal method of appointing judges for life. However, a 2000 survey of judges found that 53 percent were against retention elections for superior court judges.

Friedman said there are other options. “There are a lot of ideas and many variations on the election process in the state, which I think provides some foundation for those of us in California who would like to see improvement in the process,” he said.

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