On June 5, Humboldt County will see its first contested judicial election in 20 years, when voters will choose either Lathe Gill or Lawrence Killoran to fill the seat retiring Judge Dale Reinholtsen has held for 21 years.
The election is a crucial one, as judges wield tremendous power over the citizenry of Humboldt County. After all, they marry people and grant divorces, decide child custody disputes and the dispersing of estates. They authorize the seizure of personal property and protect people's rights and decide when someone's freedom should be taken away and for how long. And in the most extreme cases, they sentence people to death.
And the election will usher one of the candidates into an exclusive club as just the 33rd superior court judge in Humboldt County's history. We asked both candidates to answer some questions about criminal justice in Humboldt County, their backgrounds and themselves. Here's what they had to say.
NCJ: What are the two biggest challenges facing the Humboldt Superior Court System and how do you plan on addressing them as judge?
Lathe Gill: Mental health is a major social issue in our county. It touches everything: schools, property crime, violence, recidivism, homelessness and addiction. We used to have a grant-funded mental health court program.
In 2008, the NCJ reported on the suicide of James Lee Peters, a Yurok man, inside the Humboldt County jail in 2007 ("Nobody's Fault," May 15, 2008). It's a compelling read. And very little has changed.
Many offenders in our court need mental health services. Our Homeless Court and Probation's Adult Drug Court are helping. But being able to get offenders mental health treatment is an urgent community need. Last year, the sheriff asked the state to fund a 52-bed mental health wing in the jail expansion; the state said no.
If we could find money for a mental health court, there would be more options for getting people into treatment outside the jail.
The other challenge is resources. We have eight courtrooms but only six judges. Delays for civil trials are unacceptably long and court clerk hours are less than most of our neighboring counties. We need more hours in Hoopa and to re-open in Garberville.
I would advocate for court funding and seek grants and community support for a mental health court.
Lawrence Killoran: I have served in the Humboldt County Courthouse for 17 years. During that time, I have seen the courtrooms run smoothly and other times disruptions have had large impacts. Currently, two challenges we face are overcrowded courtroom calendars and defendant addiction.
These challenges are the result, in part, of relatively recent laws requiring some defendants to serve felony sentences in local jails under certain conditions. This has resulted in jail overcrowding and the priority release of non-violent inmates. Non-violent repeat offenders, often times addicted, have found a revolving door at the jail. Their multiple arrests are a challenge for our jail, courtrooms and community. Fortunately, there is room for optimism.
For example, for years we have not had enough resources to treat the addicted. The recently announced plan for a new treatment facility (Aegis) is good news. As a judge, I will address the challenges by using court sentencing options ordering treatment in appropriate cases. Those that show a genuine dedication to treatment will be afforded the opportunity to succeed. The more people successfully treated, the more likely their removal from the criminal justice system — a win/win/win for our jails, courts and community.
NCJ: How would you describe a superior court judge's role in the local criminal justice system?
Gill: Judges decide whether the police, or the prosecutor, have met the test of probable cause. They consider the defendant's relationships with the community and history in bail review and sentencing. The court polices the lawyers through motions, discovery and rulings on objections. They instruct the jury on the law, control the questioning and selection of the jury and ensure that defendants understand the pleas they enter.
The most difficult role of a judge in criminal cases is sentencing. Most crimes in California have determinate sentences, meaning that the law provides three different possible sentences. The judge considers aggravating and mitigating factors, and discretionary sentence enhancements. The judge can also grant probation or refer an offender to a collaborative court program (like drug court).
Sentencing is challenging because there are competing interests in every case. Those are: punishment, deterrence of future crime by the offender and by others, treatment and restorative justice, which is a piece of most collaborative court programs and probation. It's a big responsibility and you want to get it right.
Killoran: A judge's role in the criminal justice system begins at arraignment, when the defendant pleads either guilty or not guilty. If guilty, the judge can sentence the individual or refer the case to the probation department for a sentencing recommendation. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge sets future dates for pretrial or preliminary hearings.
Because plea bargaining is an essential component of our judicial system, we also have something known as intervention hearings. The judge's role at intervention is critical. Intervention hearings are meetings between the judge, district attorney and defense attorney to see if the case can resolve without preliminary hearing or trial. These meetings are informal and provide the judge and attorneys an opportunity to openly discuss the strength/weakness of the case and possible outcomes that might include anything from dismissal to probation or incarceration. Failing a plea bargain, the case goes on a trial track and the judge's role becomes that of umpire, using their experience and knowledge to apply the law to the facts until final resolution of the case. While performing these essential functions, a judge must also be fair, impartial and unbiased to all parties, and run an efficient courtroom.
NCJ: Why are you the right person to take a seat on the Humboldt County bench?
Gill: I have a background in civil litigation, which is a current need in our court.
When I worked for Service Employees International Union, I was the courts director for Northern California. I got a close-up view of the Administrative Office of the Courts' bloat and mismanagement, and the struggles courts in every county faced as the state raided court reserves. Our work was multifaceted, dealing with security, interpreters, research attorneys, court reporters, clerks, facilities management, unfair court funding and construction.
I would take responsibility for my priorities — to establish a mental health court and to lobby the state for the resources for an accessible, effective court. The Judicial Council's own models suggest we are still between 20 and 30 percent underfunded.
Every judge brings values and experiences into the court, which influence the judge's perspective on witnesses, evidence, fairness and reasonability. My career has been spent helping people without power get access to justice: people who faced discrimination or retaliation at work, whistleblowers and mom-and-pop businesses. My work with dedicated teachers from Orleans to Redway also gives me a ground-level view of the challenges we face as a community for the next 20 years. I bring vision and experience to the court.
Killoran: I am the right person to take a seat on the Humboldt County bench because I have an extensive knowledge of the law and courtroom procedures. My 17-year Humboldt County legal career includes a practice dedicated to criminal law and family law with experience in guardianship, adoption, adult conservatorship, domestic violence restraining orders, civil harassment restraining orders and juvenile law.
In my practice, I have appeared in every courtroom of the courthouse. In addition, I am a strong advocate for my clients and I have a reputation for fairness. I also feel that the right person to serve on the bench should have a strong connection to the community where they will be making their judgments. I have that connection. For example, I have served the community as a volunteer with Legal Services of Northern California in Eureka for 13 years, providing free legal advice to financially challenged clients. As a husband, father, 10-year Mad River Youth Soccer League volunteer soccer coach and active community member, I am committed to Humboldt County.
My diverse and extensive courtroom legal experience combined with my profound connection to our community make me the right person to be the next Humboldt County Superior Court judge.
The last day to register to vote in the June 5 election is May 21. For more information on the candidates, visit their webpages at www.gill4judge.com and www.lawrencekilloranforjudge.com. Watch a May 8 forum with both candidates at www.pbsnorthcoast.org.
The Candidates at a Glance
City of residence? Cutten/Ridgewood
Where did you grow up? Ocean Beach
How long have you lived in Humboldt County? On the North Coast for 12 years, about five in Eureka.
Can you provide a brief education history? I have a B.A. in anthropology from University of California Los Angeles and two law degrees, one from the University of San Diego and another from the Melbourne University in Australia.
Can you please provide a brief work history? What is your current occupation? I have been a lawyer for 18 years. I worked in civil private practice for 10 years full time and six years part time. I work for the California Teachers Association as a representative. I bargain teacher contracts, handle grievances and arbitrations, conduct trainings and help with school board elections. I also worked for the Service Employees International Union, managing field staff from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, and representing cities, counties and courts. I also represented juvenile corrections, probation officers, district attorney investigators and prosecutors, and victim/witness advocates.
What do you consider the three most important endorsements you have received to date in your campaign for judge? I was really honored to receive the endorsement of the Humboldt County Central Democratic Committee and the Humboldt-Del Norte Central Labor Council. I would say that the third most important endorsement — to me — was that of the Eureka Teachers Association. They are my largest bargaining unit, with more than 200 teachers, and they know me better than almost anybody in terms of my character and my work.
What is your favorite movie? The Princess Bride
What if your favorite book? The Count of Monte Cristo
What magazine do you read most regularly? The Economist
If your campaign had a theme song, what would it be? "Get the Party Started," by Pink
Who is your favorite fictional lawyer or judge? Jack McCoy, from Law & Order
Who is your favorite real-life lawyer/judge? Hugo Black
Dog or cats? Dogs. Cats make my eyes water.
What is your favorite hobby? Cooking. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I like trying new dishes.
What would your superpower be and how would you use it? Reading minds. That would be a useful thing for a judge, wouldn't it?
City of residence? McKinleyville
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Dresher, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
How long have you lived in Humboldt County? 17 years
Can you provide a brief education history? I attended Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. I graduated from San Jose State University, Cum Laude, with a B.A. in history and a political science minor in 1997 and I graduated from Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco in 2000.
Can you provide a brief work history? I started early, washing dishes in a diner and was paid "under the table" when I was 13. I also worked as a drummer with musicians much older than I, and was paid for the first time at age 15. I continued to play music and supplemented my income by waiting tables and bartending into my 20s. During my undergraduate education, I worked as a bartender at the Tied House in Mountain View and, while in law school, I worked in the school law library and also as a research assistant to professor David Oppenheimer. In 2001, my wife and I moved to McKinleyville and I worked with attorney Russell Clanton in Arcata doing criminal defense for three years. In 2004, I moved to Scott, Robinson and Killoran in Eureka and have been there for 14 years practicing in criminal, family, civil and juvenile law.
What is your current occupation? Attorney at law at Scott, Robinson and Killoran.
What do you consider the three most important endorsements you have received to date in your campaign for judge? I am humbled by all of my endorsements, but particularly those of the judges and commissioner (John Feeney, Greg Elvine-Kreis, Kelly Neel, Kaleb Cochrum and Timothy Canning) for their confidence in my courtroom abilities. I am also grateful that I have endorsements from a diverse range of supporters including, for example, Humboldt County Sheriff Billy Honsal and Humboldt County Public Defender Marek Reavis.
What is your favorite movie? The Wizard of Oz (Come on, it's really fun!)
What is your favorite book? Fiction (tie): The Grapes of Wrath and Catch-22. Nonfiction: The Fatal Shore, The Epic of Australia's Founding
What magazine do you read most regularly? Humboldt Historian — the official publication of the Humboldt County Historical Society.
If your campaign had a theme song, what would it be? "Beautiful Day" by U2
Who is your favorite fictional judge? Chief Judge Daniel Haywood, played by Spencer Tracy, in Judgment at Nuremberg
Who is your favorite real-life judge? Hon. Paul Cole, County of Santa Clara Superior Court (retired). I did an internship with Judge Cole as an undergraduate and his encouragement and friendship solidified my pursuit of a courtroom legal career.
Dogs or cats? Tough one. Our family has two dogs, four cats, fish, a rabbit and two horses. It's a zoo.
What are your favorite hobbies? Hiking, camping, reading, playing my acoustic guitar.
What would your superpower be and how would you use it? Time-bending. I would take people back in time so that I could help them change the decisions they made that brought them into court!