By Ken Stone
And that’s all some people want to know when it comes to the Office 30 judge election — an officially nonpartisan race to replace retired San Diego County Superior Court Judge Louis R. Hanoian.
But Tuesday afternoon, in their lone debate before the Nov. 3 election, Nader and Starita highlighted traits other than party affiliation.Rev. Shane Harris to hammer home his liberal leanings.
In his 2-minute closing statement, state Deputy Attorney General Nader featured his experiences outside the courtroom and views on current events.
He said some American factions are “simply denying reality.” He decried Sean Hannity of Fox News for labeling the Black Lives Matter movement a Marxist plot.
“On COVID-19, you can go to websites that will tell you it’s a hoax,” Nader said. “I got a lot of blowback for wearing a mask in public. … I’m endorsed by people who believe in facts on climate change, on COVID, on racial justice.”
Starita — speaking via Zoom from a hotel room in Washington, D.C., “a half-mile from the capital” — never noted his GOP endorsement. But he stressed the need for empathy — an issue in the presidential race.
He distanced himself from the liberal depiction of right-wingers as white supremacists.
“Being in the Marine Corps for over 30 years, … that’s a cross section of our great society and the people in our county — different races, colors, creeds,” Starita, 54, said in the friendly, courteous debate.
In the Marines, he said, “we only see green. [But] in the courtroom, the key is you can’t just say I only see one color. You have to say that I am going to be willing to understand and empathize and know that I myself may have limits, and I’m going to try to go beyond those limits to help people that are underserved.”Nader was runner-up to Starita in a four-man primary for the six-year term, and sought to make up any deficit by appealing to the Democratic elements of a modest-sized online audience (70 people, organizers said).
Calling himself a textualist, Nader, 63, said he had difficulty understanding why some folks label themselves the same but don’t understand “the simple words ‘equal protection’ — which are written into the 14th Amendment.”
He said 800,000 Americans died in the Civil War to get those words into the Constitution.
“And in our history since then, some courts and judges have not taken those words literally, whether the issue is gender equality, or racial equality or gay marriage, you name it,” he said. “People seem to ignore those two simple words when it’s convenient, whatever the prejudice may be.”
Starita answered the same question: What is your judicial philosophy?
“It’s follow the law,” he said. “We don’t make law as judges. That’s up to the state Legislature. The most important thing for a Superior Court judge to remember is that you’re there to follow the law and be fair and impartial.”
He brought up the E-word for the first time.
“When sentencing an individual, you have to be able to have empathy,” he said. “Be able to be fair. And be aware of what’s going on with that individual and the case itself.”
Starita and Nader agreed on several issues, including the need to foster confidence in the system. They both are leery of Proposition 20, which would make certain types of theft and fraud crimes chargeable as misdemeanors or felonies, rather than only misdemeanors.
Nader: “It illustrates the difficulties we have when we legislate by initiative rather than through the legislative process.”
Starita: “I just don’t think legislating by proposition is the way to go. The people who are elected by the citizens of the state should be making laws.”
They split on Prop. 25, however. That’s the measure that would end the cash-bail system and replace it with one that gives judges guidance on when to release criminal suspects before trial and when to jail them.
Starita said the idea and goals are good — jailing fewer people before trial.
“But if judges are divested of their discretion … and rely on a number system to determine whether they should incarcerate someone, it could have the perverse effect of incarcerating more people pretrial,” he said.
Voters should take a “hard look at it before they make a decision,” said Starita, who was endorsed last week by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Nader came straight out: “I support the proposition. … The Legislature held extensive hearings, and they came to the conclusion … that this bill was a good idea. The referendum was put on the ballot by the bail industry, to basically try to save itself.”
Not having money is not a reason for a suspect to be held pretrial, he said.
“Flight risk and danger to the community are the factors to be considered, not economic wealth,” Nader said. “I think the Legislature did its due diligence on this.”
Harris, founder of the People’s Alliance for Justice, shared moderating duties with Times of San Diego publisher Chris Jennewein. Harris asked the pair: As a prosecutor, what has been your greatest challenge?
Starita called every case a challenge.
“My loyalty isn’t just to the United States but it’s to the defendant, to the victim… Doing right by everyone in the system,” he said. “Make sure that the right result occurs.”
He said that, no matter how a trial ended, “I always won because whether you’re not guilty or guilty, justice was done because I did my best to make sure that evidence was brought and the case was properly heard and the defendant got his day in court.”
Nader said his biggest challenge was ensuring the rights of crime victims, who may not get the attention they deserve.“We’ve talked a lot this year about racial disparities, and the criminal justice system,” he said from Chula Vista. “There were some serious racial disparities in how survivors of crime are treated.”
Nader also boasted of coming onto the Southwestern College governing board and being elected president his first night in office.
“We had a very serious ingrained public corruption problem at the college,” he said. “I used to joke that I never thought my experience as a prosecutor would be so useful as a community college trustee. We made sure that the DA got all the evidence she wanted from college records. We changed stonewalling into complete cooperation. … We’re still cleaning up, frankly.”
Moderator Harris prefaced another question by noting inequities in the justice system for people of color, such as oversentencing. He asked how the candidates would address criminal justice reform, and “do you believe the judicial branch holds a responsibility in that effort?”
Starita said “absolutely” to the inequities assumption.
“The judge is more than a referee or an umpire simply calling balls and strikes,” he said. Then he pivoted to his qualifications, saying the bar association did a “nonpartisan search of my background, they interviewed people that I tried cases against, defense counsel…. They concluded that I was exceptionally qualified to be a judge.”
Harris noted that Nader’s campaign slogan was “tough but fair.”
Nader didn’t use that phrase in the debate, however.
“It starts with being aware of the problem,” Nader said. “I have a long record of accepting facts rather than basing decisions on ideology. Whether that issue is climate change or the COVID pandemic or racial discrimination in our justice system.”
He said he’s had personal exposure to disparities in the justice system.
“I personally have been profiled as an Arab American,” Nader said. “My moot court partner in law school, who was African American, was detained by the police because he was Black and ‘in the wrong place.'”
The lone question from the Zoom audience came from Steven Yu, who said he was voting for the first time. He asked about police facing criminal charges.
Starita said it’s up to the judge to make sure such trials are fair, starting with jury selection.
“A judge has to have the courage that if they detect behavior that’s inappropriate they inject themselves into the situation … to correct something,” he said.
Nader added the role judges play in giving jury instructions — “that don’t tilt the playing field.”
Then he went where Starita didn’t.“In my mind, a crime committed by a police officer is worse than a crime committed by others because the police officer acts under color of authority,” Nader said. “The police officer, like a judge, is supposed to be setting an example for the community of being law-abiding. When police officers do not do that, it undermines our entire system as well. In the most notorious cases, (it causes) the mostly ghastly immoral results you can imagine.”
Nader said as a judge he’d like to work with law enforcement and the community to develop programs that will keep such police-crime “from becoming trials in the first place.”
“Develop relationships,” he said, recalling police efforts in Chula Vista. “Hire from within the community.”
Harris made news as well.
He said he’d push for making the county’s top public defender an elected position.
“These are things that we’re planning — a new campaign to do that, following Election Day,” he said. “I’m giving kind of like a sneak peek here.”
And why was Starita in Washington?
“I am a Marine Reserve appellate judge at the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals,” he said via email after the debate. “We have annual training for all appellate judges from all the services in D.C. this week.”
He said he’d be heading home Thursday.
“My family and I voted a week ago, and our ballots have already been received by the Registrar of Voters,” Starita said. “It was really fun to watch my 18-year-old son vote for the first time.”
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