The three county Superior Court Judge candidates “tea’ed off” last Wednesday night in El Dorado Hills. The candidate forum, which included District 1 and 2 supervisor candidates filled the Holiday Inn event room, capacity 160, for two-plus hours to hear a total of seven local candidates discuss the challenges of local government and pitch their best ideas to fix things.
The Tea Party Patriots of El Dorado Hills hosted the forum, which included a brief presentation by Darwin Thorne on the evils of Obamanomics.
Veteran El Dorado Hills Realtor Steve Ferry moderated the forum and reminded his audience that Tea Party principles extend to the local level. “Local government is as big an issue as the national races,” he said. “Nationally, 685 Tea Party patriots were elected to local offices two years ago.”
Ferry gave each candidate 10 minutes to make their case.
Attorney Joseph Hoffman introduced himself as an El Dorado Hills resident who has practiced law in El Dorado County for 18 years. He’s served as a volunteer “pro tem” judge for the last 10 years, and said many local lawyers now seek him out as a private judge.
“It’s a sad commentary that they’re willing to pay money to get a fast, well thought out ruling,” he said. “That should be the job of the court, but because of backlogs they come to me.”
He specializes in family law, but said he also has vast experience in real estate, personal injury, inverse condemnation, business litigation, “virtually every area of civil law … and I’ve done it in this county.”
Hoffman and his wife, who’s also an attorney, operate law offices in Cameron Park and Folsom, which also makes him a local small businessman, he said.
The local judicial system is understaffed, time-consuming and expensive, he said, then suggested that the root of the problem is a lack of consistency from the bench,
Many of the cases which come before a judge are similar, he said, but lawyers can’t predict with any confidence how a judge will rule. As a result, the docket is cluttered with cases that should have been settled in advance.
Consistent judges “create the environment for attorneys to reach agreement outside the court, and saves money for all of us,” he said.
Hoffman boasts dozens of local judges and attorneys on his endorsement list, “the people most involved in the system,” he said.
He defended the practices of local attorneys endorsing judge candidates. “They want the most qualified candidate,” he said. “These are the people who believe I would be a good judge.”
Retired Superior Court Commissioner Stephen Valentine emphasized his breadth of legal and judicial experience, and pitched himself as someone who can make tough decisions quickly and effectively.
He said he’s ruled in thousands of cases over his six-plus years as Small Claims Court Commissioner in both Placerville and South Lake Tahoe. He ruled in a wide variety of cases, including unlawful detainers, contract disputes, personal injury, family law, “everything short of major criminal trials,” he said.
Big counties allow judges the luxury of specializing, he said. “But this is a small county. Our judges must step up and take whatever case they get.”
Small claims court, which caps out at $7,500 claims, may not have the big price tag, “but the cases can be every bit as complex,” he said.
He also presided over “tens of thousands of traffic cases,” most of which were wrapped up in six to eight weeks, he said. “If you fought a ticket in El Dorado County, you came to my court.”
Most of his decisions were made from the bench, but he often visited the site of the infraction after hours to check out the situation firsthand, he said.
Valentine spent the 1980s as a reserve deputy in Ventura County, an experience which taught him sound decision-making, he said. He subsequently became a lawyer. Most of his legal career was in family law from his Cameron Park office.
He also taught ethics, and said took issue with Hoffman’s statement that many cases are similar. “There’s no such thing as a typical case,” he said, “Especially in family law.”
“If you want someone who can handle any case that comes down the pike, then you want me,” he said. “I’m also the only one up here that’s ever served a search warrant, arrested someone, investigated crimes or rolled around in the dirt handcuffing someone.”
Warren “Curt” Stracener was appointed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fill a newly created Superior Court seat in 2010, according to the website judgepedia.org. His term runs through December.
He told the Tea Party listeners he’s heard over 2,000 matters in dependency and delinquency court, plus over 5,000 traffic cases. “I decided every case and not one has been reversed,” he said.
Stracener has lived in El Dorado County for 15 years. He described himself as “experienced, tough and fair.”
Early in his career, Stracener was a school teacher. After becoming a lawyer he spent 19 years as a litigator for the state, eventually taking a lead role in the state worker furlough litigation during the 2010-2011 budget impasse, when 21 public sector bargaining units sued the state. Stracener said he carried the case successfully all the way to the California Supreme Court.
He served as a hearing officer and pro tem small claims court judge in Sacramento County, before being named to new El Dorado County Superior Court seat in 2010.
He told the Tea Party audience “I spend 19 years facing off against the toughest labor unions in the state and we beat them consistently.”
He mentioning the Service Employees International Union by name, and the “even tougher prison guards union,” neither of which was tougher than taking a child away from its parents in Dependency Court, he said.
Stracener said he’s appeared in superior courts around the state, and even made an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting him to boast, “None of my challengers have that breadth of experience.”
He said he disagrees with Hoffman on the propriety of local attorneys endorsing judge candidates. “I’m not soliciting local endorsements,” he said. “I have over 50 judges and between 20 and 30 attorney [endorsements],” he said. “Only two of them are from this county, so there won’t be a conflict of interest.”
The election will be held on June 5. If no single candidate gets a simple majority, a runoff will be held in November.