Thursday, August 12, 2010

Michael Nava Reaffirmed

The Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) of San Francisco met early Wednesday evening to vote on their many endorsements for the November 2nd election to be held in three months.

The room was a small, narrow union hall in the Tenderloin on Golden Gate Avenue, and it was stuffed to the gills with the 33 voting members of the DCCC and a couple of hundred interested parties sitting and standing against the walls.

The meeting agenda was juggled so that The Controversial Case of Michael Nava (above left) could be heard first. The DCCC had endorsed Nava in his run for Superior Court Judge during June's primary election against an incumbent judge, Richard Ulmer, and another challenger. Nava won the election but didn't gather the 50%+ majority required, so he is running against Ulmer alone this November 2nd.

After the primary, a legal cabal, spearheaded by presiding state Court of Appeals judge Anthony Kline and presiding San Francisco Superior Court Judge James McBride, decided to do everything possible to make sure Ulmer wins the November contest. It fits in with their vision of "judicial independence," which is another way of saying they don't believe judges should have to stand for election if at all possible.

A good article by Tim Redmond at the Bay Guardian (click here) details the campaign against Nava, including a war cabinet meeting of judges summoned for battle at the law offices of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro in early July. The main organizers, by the way, are all Democratic judges rather than Republican ones as has been misreported elsewhere, which only made the meeting that much more disgraceful. It really was about protecting an insular, class-bound white man's club. According to the article, the main dissenter was the indispensable Peter Keane, dean emeritus of Golden Gate Law University, who was quoted as following:
Keane said that “to frame this as an independence of the judicary question cheapens that argument.” Nava, he said, has every legal right to run and make the case that he’d be a better judge than Ulmer. “Ulmer’s been endorsed by the Republicans,” Keane said. “So what’s wrong if Nava is endorsed by the Democrats?” Keane said he’d voted for Ulmer in June, but was switching to supporting Nava this fall, in part because he sees a powerful attack coming down against the challenger. “A lot of Brahmins in the legal society have gotten stampeded into the lynch mob against Michael,” he said.

The political pressure brought to bear by statewide heavyweights was impressive, led by John Burton who is the Chairman of the California Democratic Party. On Saturday afternoon, there was a meeting of the DCCC to hear a quintet of Nava's judicial attackers, including gay Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy. According to an article by Kate Moser in "The Recorder" legal paper:
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy also spoke at the meeting, saying Nava's challenge is different from his own. McCarthy, one of three candidates to successfully challenge an incumbent San Francisco judge in the past 20 years, said he decided to run in the 1990s when he was discouraged by what he saw as an unwillingness by governors to appoint lesbian and gay candidates to the bench. "I did it because there was no other choice," McCarthy said. Despite the comparisons of McCarthy's path to Nava's, he said, "in the context of this particular race, the balance between diversity and judicial independence is different." There are "people in the pipeline now" from the LGBT community, he said, in line for appointments.

I believe this is called slamming the door shut once you've entered yourself.

The debate on rescinding Michael Nava's endorsement started off with a rambling disquisition by the former California State Senator newly elected to the DCCC, Carol Migden. She was spearheading the defense of "judicial independence" and continuity in the courts, and it soon became obvious that Frank Chu (above) is a model of clear-thinking sanity compared to the lunatic Ms. Migden.

Then Supervisor David Campos, a friend of Michael Nava, stood up to speak, and he gave one of the most impassioned, angry and beautiful speeches I've heard from him or any other politician lately. He first detailed the reasons why Nava should be elected as judge and then described the outrageous campaign of political pressure by judges who were doing so in the name of "keeping politics out of the judiciary." By their very acts, he said, they were making the election that much more political with every bit of lobbying. Greg Kamin at Fog City Journal wrote the best account of the meeting I have found (click here). Here's an excerpt:
Um… yeah. It’s every bit as bad as it sounds. The rationale seems to be that incumbent judges shouldn’t have to face opponents for re-election. Back when I lived in the Soviet Union, they had elections where you only had one candidate, and (surprise surprise) that candidate always won. But last time I checked, the Iron Curtain came down, and this is not the Soviet Politburo. Former California Senator Carole Migden and Attorney Bill Fazio, who squeaked into 12th place on the west side, had requested a re-vote, on the somewhat specious reasoning that they didn’t have a chance to participate the first time. Migden spoke first, repeating the assertion that incumbent judges should be given the benefit of the doubt. But boy, was team Nava ready for them! Supervisor David Campos gave one of his most eloquent and passionate speeches ever. The audience repeatedly applauded. La Raza Lawyers Foundation was in the house. Alice B. Toklas Club members were on hand to lend support. By the time DCCC member Arlo Hale Smith started speaking in favor of keeping the endorsement, it was pretty clear that the coup had failed.

The final, shortest speech came from chairman Aaron Peskin who noted the "double standard" of the judiciary requesting that the Democratic County Committee stay neutral in the race while Ulmer, the Decline-to-State candidate, had already requested and received the official endorsement of the San Francisco Republican Party.

The entire scene was quite dramatic, and by the end the near-unanimous vote against rescinding Michael Nava's endorsement was greeted with cheers. The only person posting a yea for a revote was Mad Ms. Migden, the nemesis of CBS-TV Blogger Beth Spotswood (above).

Michael Nava looked a bit blown away and bewildered by the entire drama, though he shouldn't have been, since the scene was straight out of one of his seven Henry Rios detective novels. If you've read the series, one of the best California detective fictions ever, it's obvious why Nava would make a great judge. If you haven't, the best reason to vote for him is what a commenter wrote in response to the Bay Guardian article:
We have a system that allows for the election of judges. I'm not convinced that it's necessarily the best system, but it's what we have to work with. As such, my duty as a voter is to cast my vote for whomever I think will be the best superior court judge. That will be Nava. It's not because he's gay or Latino, it's because he's the better candidate. This is a guy who took his Stanford J.D. and worked as a prosecutor in L.A. instead of settling for a six figure salary at a big firm. Ulmer, on the other hand, took his Stanford J.D. straight to a series of big corporate law firms. There's nothing wrong with that, but for a judge I value Nava's experience in a City Attorney's Office *and* in private practice at a seriously intense boutique litigation firm over Ulmer's more thin experience at large corporate law firms.

The strongest element of diversity that Nava brings isn't his race or sexual orientation, it's his experience working in a wide range of legal contexts.


Greg said...

excellent recap. I give a high five to you, beth and brian for covering this, so I didn't have to attend. (beth and brian's twitter coverage was awesome).

They really put these meetings in some of the worst possible locations in the City. I ran a write in campaign for DCCC as a joke but my platform was that I'd move the meetings where anyone would feel welcome, where there'd be decent wifi and cell phone service, and there'd be free sodas, waters, beers, a fully stocked bar, and tea and coffee, so at least being at the meetings would be more tolerable.

momo said...

This is such a great dramatic story, not just because of the positive outcome, but because eloquent, passionate reason won the day.

AphotoAday said...

Probably the most introspective photo of Frank Chu I've ever seen.

janinsanfran said...

Great reporting. And, my goodness, how far Migden has fallen ...

Especially good to hear from Peter Keane.

Like @Greg, I'm very glad you went to this and I didn't have to.

sfmike said...

Dear Greg and Jan: I only stayed for the first hour of three. In fact, it was quite nice of them to start with that agenda item for my convenience.

Thanks everyone for the kind words.

Asa DeMatteo said...

As a Democrat, a gay man, and a person of color (I am Sicilian and Mexican), I am offended by Michael Nava's assertion that he should be elected because he is gay and a minority. If Mr. Nava has some evidence that Judge Richard Ulmer has not served the public (or any of its communities) or has in some other manner been remiss in his judicial performance, then he should bring such evidence forward. All I can gather from Nava's complaint about Ulmer is that he is not a minority and that he was appointed by Schwarzenegger. To assert such reasons as valid for throwing out a sitting judge is, in my opinion, the essence of politicization. Ulmer has the support of Judge Richard Kramer, who originally ruled California's ban against same-sex marriage as being unconstitutional in 2004 as the California State Constitution then stood, and of Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled Proposition 8 and being a U.S. Constitutional violation. One is straight; the other is gay. Both are non-minority males. Should we rid ourselves of these white male jurists? Nava's qualifications do not rise to the level of Ulmer's, but his willingness to engage in politically correct rhetoric rises to a level approved by the local Democratic machine. Who will put an end to such political takeover of our judicial system if not us? I will be voting for the incumbent, Judge Richard Ulmer, on principal as well as in light of his superior qualifications, and I urge my neighbors to do the same.

sfmike said...

Dear Asa: I will repeat, stop spamming this blog. And your claims about Judge Richard Ulmer's superior qualifications is purely subjective, not a fact of any sort. I happen to think Nava would be a better judge.

Asa DeMatteo said...

I didn't post this last repetition. I don't understand how it came to be reposted. I regret that it was. I did post this:

"It is important for voters to have a mechanism for getting bad judges off the bench; but Nava has offered no evidence of Ulmer being a bad judge. Sure Nava has the constitutional right to run against a sitting judge, but does he have a good reason for doing so? The existing court is already one of the most diverse in the nation. As a gay person who has suffered the tyranny of majority rule re my rights, I am very reluctant to act in such a manner that supports subjecting a sitting judge to majority whims. I wish Nava was similarly careful in assessing the effects of his actions. Nava is using the same argument structure, though not content, as the conservatives who scream about activist judges. It's wrong when right wing loud mouths do it; it's wrong when liberal, gay, minority Democrats do it, whatever the law. That's why I'm voting for Ulmer."

As for qualifications, the claim is not mine: Ulmer gets a "highly qualified" rating, Nava a "qualified" from the San Francisco Bar Association. Maybe you are the more subjective one.

sfmike said...

Dear Asa: Thanks for the spam apology. And my feelings for Mr. Nava are very subjective. I read his detective novels during the 1990s and thought they were some of the best California fiction I've ever read. When he started his campaign, I got to know him, and he turned out to be a cool, smart, ethical, and remarkably humble character. As for the SF Bar Association's four-star vs. three-star rating, I'd rather follow Peter Keane's estimation which is that both Ulmer or Nava are perfectly well-qualified for the job. The question is who do you want on the bench, and my choice is Nava all the way.