Four years after Humboldt County's first contested judicial election in 20 years, we have another, with two candidates vying for the seat being vacated by Judge Christopher Wilson's retirement. And seeing as an incumbent judge hasn't faced a challenger locally in decades, whoever wins a seat on the bench in June seems likely to be there for a while.
To become a superior court judge in California is to enter rarified air — after all, there are only 58 superior courts in the state, one in each county, though some have multiple courthouses. Judicial terms span six years, with vacancies filled through gubernatorial appointments, and judges wield a tremendous amount of discretion in their courtrooms, whether hearing civil or criminal cases.
In civil cases — which include family law proceedings, probate cases, petitions for court orders and claims — a judge's decision can determine whether a family stays together, how an estate is dispersed, what records are determined to be open to public view and who's at fault in a given dispute. In criminal cases — which include felonies, misdemeanors and infractions, like traffic tickets — judges determine whether there is enough evidence to support a charge, what evidence will be admissible at trial, how a jury will be instructed on the law and, ultimately, what constitutes a just sentence for those found guilty.
The two candidates looking to enter this fray are Ben McLaughlin and Steven Steward, both of whom have backgrounds in criminal law.
Currently working as a deputy public defender, McLaughlin, 51, grew up in Palo Alto and has lived in Humboldt County for 15 years. After graduating from Vanderbilt University as a history major with an emphasis in Latin American history in 1994, McLaughlin received his law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law in 1999. He spent a stint in civil litigation before focusing on criminal law for much of the last 17 years, including seven years serving as a deputy district attorney — prosecuting violent felonies — and five as a deputy public defender in Del Norte and Humboldt counties.
Steward, 42, meanwhile, grew up just outside Los Angeles and moved to Humboldt County in 1998 to attend Humboldt State University and pursue a degree in political science, before leaving the area to attend graduate school at San Francisco State University. Steward then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a member of Congress before attending law school at The Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, while working to provide legal services to indigent clients at a domestic violence clinic. After getting his law degree and returning to California, Steward spent seven years representing low-income defendants in criminal courts in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, before he and his family moved back to Humboldt County to raise children. Steward has worked as a deputy district attorney since 2017, prosecuting serious and violent crimes, as well as serving as the office's lead environmental crimes prosecutor.
In the lead up to the June 7 election, the Journal caught up with both candidates and asked them to answer a handful of questions about their backgrounds, perspectives and personalities. To view their full responses, visit www.northcoastjournal.com. (Spoiler alert, asked to name their favorite fictional judge, one candidate tapped Judge Chamberlain Haller from the movie My Cousin Vinny, while the other named Judge Smails from Caddyshack.) But here's how the candidates weighed in on the more substantive questions.
Asked about judge's role in making Humboldt County a more just community, McLaughlin said it's essential that judges treat all parties respectfully, with dignity, noting this is especially important in civil cases with litigants representing themselves in the process because they cannot afford counsel but who "have an absolute right to access the judicial process." On the criminal side, he said it's important judges protect the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the accused, while making sure victims and survivors are heard by the court.
"Victims and survivors must feel as though their rights and safety are considered and appropriately prioritized," McLaughlin said.
When it comes to sentencing, McLaughlin said certain crimes — gun violence, sexual violence, homicides — "require a prison term," while in other cases, justice "may require a probationer to repay a business owner, remove graffiti, serve custodial time or get his/her/their act together through mental health and addiction counseling."
Steward, meanwhile, said judges have a central role in making Humboldt County a fair community by making sure their decisions are made "fairly and free from political or other influences," avoiding "even the appearance of impropriety."
"Whether a defendant is rich or poor, powerful or not, my record shows that I have treated everyone equally and with respect," Steward said. "I will bring to bear this experience and my proven track record of impartiality to make Humboldt a more just community that we can all be proud of."
Asked about the cyclical nature of childhood trauma, drug and alcohol abuse and crime, Steward said he's "committed to breaking the cycle of drug and alcohol-related offenses that make up the bulk of our local arrests." Steward said the dual epidemic of substance abuse and a lack of mental health treatment is challenging, saying he'd look at "diversionary models" that address underlying causes of criminality for nonviolent offenders "who show a sincere desire to seek rehabilitative service," pointing to Drug Court as an example of a successful program.
"I am proud to say that I am a board member of Waterfront Recovery Center in Eureka, which is a dual diagnosis facility that does transformational work in our community," Steward said. "I am not solely spending time in the courtroom prosecuting cases, I am working, on my own time, to address these issues and would continue to do so as a judge."
McLaughlin, meanwhile, said breaking these cycles is "where the rubber meets the road," noting that addressing the generational trauma within Indigenous communities locally, and childhood trauma more broadly, would help resolve some of Humboldt County's chronic issues.
"When offenders are addicted or ill or commit criminal acts because of generational or physical trauma, the model being developed by the Yurok Tribe is informative," McLaughlin said. "The Yurok's approach to overall wellness is thoughtful and considers a person's individual and cultural histories. Applying this approach across the board would pay dividends, I think."
McLaughlin also said Drug Court eligibility needs to be expanded to include low-level offenders, and in cases where probation is not appropriate, McLaughlin said he'd like to see the expansion of re-entry programs that help felons transition back into the community with sponsorships and job training.
"The dignity of a job — and hopefully health insurance — can also help break the cycle of trauma," he said.
Asked how he would find work-life balance in a job with a workload some have described as "daunting," Steward said he doesn't want to be a judge because it's easy but because "it is worthwhile." Steward described his current job as "demanding," saying he finds balance by "getting into our beautiful forest and beaches" with his family.
"The work is demanding and at times isolating but Humboldt deserves a judge who cares more about providing justice than vacation time," he said.
McLaughlin, meanwhile, said he hopes he'll find the job "intellectually stimulating and professionally challenging," adding that he recognizes a healthy work-life balance is singularly important. He said he has worked to develop personal boundaries that allow him to spend time on himself and with his family and friends, noting it's been his practice to get to work as early as needed to finish up during the day to preserve evenings with his family.
"That said, I understand what the job entails," McLaughlin said, adding that when in trial, he'll work "as long as and whenever necessary to ensure that the business of the court is handled as efficiently as possible."
Both candidates are slated to square off in a candidate forum on KEET TV hosted by the League of Women Voters Humboldt County at 7 p.m. on June 1. Check it out and make sure to vote June 7.