I originally referred to this as Orange County’s judicial circus, but things have radically changed. Now that the official dust has settled, let’s take another look at what now looks like a One Ring Extravaganza with assorted side shows and carny acts. Keep in mind, while most of you think judicial races are “meh,” in reality they are arguable more important than legislative races in Orange County. Judges are elected for SIX YEAR TERMS. They last awhile. And, since judges review lots of legislation from Sacramento and elsewhere, they have more impact on state law and policy than most people think.
So here is a recap — and a handicap prediction on these races. The calliope music is still playing, just a bit muted.
Seat #3 originally drew five contenders. OC District Attorney Scott Zidbeck jumped ship almost on day one, quickly followed by local breast-implant litigator and defense attorney Frederick Fascenelli.
That leaves three candidates: Deputy District Attorney Megan Wagner (wife of Assemblyman Don Wagner), West Los Angeles resident and lawyer Andrew Stein, and attorney Wayne Phillips. Stein ran for judge in 2014 in his own county but lost. He thinks he might fare better in OC, but this has earned him the moniker “Carpetbagger” among several OC judges and attorneys willing to talk. Phillips ran against OC incumbent Judge Joanne Motoike in 2014 and also was a loser. Neither Stein or Phillips mounted any kind of serious campaign. Megan Wagner is now the favorite to win. She has socked away money, gotten almost every endorsement there is to get, and is likely to crush both Stein and Phillips like empty beer cans.
A last-minute filing challenged incumbent judge Derek Hunt for his Seat #23. His surprise opponent, litigation attorney Emily Wehbe-Sturgeon, just as abruptly dropped out, citing personal reasons. So Judge Hunt is safe for another day, and won’t even appear on the ballot.
Seat #40 quickly attracted opponents. Retiring judge Perk anointed Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin, a homicide prosecutor who is also a very visible spokesman for the OC’s public attorney union that represents defense lawyers as well as prosecutors. Trial attorney Frederick Fascenelli entered this race too, but jumped out of the race after the melodrama increased dramatically with the entrance of OC Board of Supervisors board member Shawn Nelson. A fourth contender soon appeared: Thuy Pham, a Deputy District Attorney with Los Angeles County.
But in a stunning departure, Shawn Nelson bowed out suddenly, leaving Yellin and Pham to go it alone. Whispers say Nelson was vexed by the potential conflict of interest his efforts to seek the OC Sheriff’s union endorsement would be met with his vote on the upcoming Sheriff’s contracts for pay increases and benefit package. Nelson has told folks he will run for judge in 2018. Just in time for Judge Marc Kelly, who was lambasted for his bizarre sentencing decision in a child rape case by Nelson, to run for re-election. Judge Kelly, heads up. You’re next on the chopping block in 2018.
In this race, Yellin has it locked. He has strong union backing and nobody knows who Thuy Pham even is. He has no active campaign, and even if He got every single Vietnamese voter vote, Yellin still wins.
Let me depart from seat numerical order to mention Seat #49. Nothing has changed here: OC homicide prosecutor Mike Murray is running against civil litigator Thomas E. Martin. Martin is an also ran who lost in 2014 without mounting any kind of campaign. Solid money says Murray is the absolute winner here. Murray has raised money, got key endorsements, started way early and is still out campaigning his ass off. Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner.
But the BIG BIG SHOW under the BIG TENT is for Seat #48, now held by incumbent judge Scott Steiner. His challenger OC Deputy District Attorney Karen Schatzle has publicly called him a sexual predator wholly unfit to almost breathe, let alone hold judicial office. Problem is, she may have a few too many closeted skeletons to point that finger. So this show is too big in fact for this post…. So for now,
KEEP IT ON THE QT!