California Gov. Jerry Brown has been appointing superior court judges up and down the state, and it stands to reason Calaveras County’s opening on its superior court bench will soon be filled.
Superior Court Judge Douglas V. Mewhinney retired last year and has been serving as an interim judge until a new appointee is named.
He will serve as an assigned judge until the governor makes a permanent replacement, which could take more than six months, and will be available as an assigned judge thereafter.
“My ideal would be to sit about an average of about one week a month,” Mewhinney said. “I really love what I do. It’s been an honor to serve the public of Calaveras for the past 34 years.”
Mewhinney, who became a judge at age 26, leaves a pair of big shoes to fill, and a caseload that has increased dramatically over the past five years, both civil and criminal.
Despite those challenges and responsibilities, several people submitted applications to the governor’s office in hopes of being appointed as the next superior court judge.
A superior court judge makes about $180,000 a year and serves six-year terms. Mewhinney was last elected in 2008 and his term expires January 5, 2015. The new appointee will have to run in an election if a challenger appears at that time.
Of those who applied for the judgeship, only four have received serious attention from the governor’s selection process.
Dana Pfeil, Calaveras County deputy district attorney, Steven Airola, San Andreas-based attorney, Grant Barrett, Calaveras County court commissioner, and Charles Robinson, a Redwood City-based attorney who owns a home in Copperopolis.
There were other applicants who were not selected for in-depth vetting by the governor’s office.
Barrett said there was no way to know how many people applied because the application process is confidential.
“To be considered, you must fill out a lengthy application eliciting your complete background information,” Airola said, adding it asks numerous questions including: “How many cases have you handled throughout your career? List your favorite 10 cases and why. List your 10 most difficult cases and why.”
Candidates are first heavily vetted by the governor’s Judicial Appointment Unit, which pores over every application it receives. The Judicial Selection Advisory Committee is also consulted in the process. Based on recommendations from the JAU and JSAC, certain candidates are sent to the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission, which undertakes a very thorough process of vetting the candidate.
In-person interviews are conducted along with questionnaires sent out to more than 50 professionals who have worked with the applicant. The JNE Commission examines its findings and makes a recommendation to the governor, however it does not appoint the judge – that power rests with the governor alone.
“The evaluations are received, reviewed and looked at for (the applicant’s) competency, credibility, standing within community,” Airola said.
Barrett, who has lived in Valley Springs for 17 years, said he applied because he feels his six years as a court commissioner and 12 years as a judge pro-tem put him in a unique position to make a smooth transition into the new position.
“I have been training for this position for years, and it’s what I believe is the natural progression,” he said.
If appointed, Barrett said he would ensure every person who came through his court was treated with respect and felt as though they had been heard.
“I would follow the law. The law is our guiding light,” he said. “I would protect the community and those who are vulnerable, provide access to the courts and keep them open. Equal treatment of all and respect in the process is essential. I would make sure people feel they are respected, heard and allowed to be involved and understood.”
Barrett said his interviews with the JNE Commission, “Went real well.”
Pfeil said when she was interviewed by JNE one of the many topics discussed was her “negatives.”
“When they send out the forms to all the local attorneys, personnel and court staff, you can write down positives and negatives. My sole negative was lack of recent civil trial and civil law experience, which is true. I’ve been a deputy district attorney for 11 years.”
Pfeil assured the commission she would diligently study civil law, just as she studied to become an attorney.
“I left the interview feeling really good,” she said. “I will tell you I’m a Republican; I’m not a Democrat.”
Based on the governor’s history, nearly every man he’s appointed has been a Democrat, however, he has appointed Republican women to the bench on occasion.
“The data show an increase in the percentage of female appellate court justices and trial court judges in 2011. Women now represent 31.1 percent of the judiciary, compared to 27.1 percent in 2006, continuing a steady upward trend over the past six years,” according to a report from Yolanda Jackson, deputy executive director for the California Bar Association of San Francisco.
“Since the beginning of his term, Gov. Brown has been very clear that he is interested in appointing a diverse group of judges,” Jackson wrote.
Pfeil is banking on this, noting if she gets the assignment she would be the first female judge ever assigned in Calaveras County.
Barrett is a Democrat, which could give him a leg up in the appointment process.
When asked if Mewhinney has indicated who he would like to replace him, Pfeil said he has not come out and endorsed any particular candidate. He did give her permission to use him as a reference, however.
“He wrote me a very nice recommendation letter, but beyond that he hasn’t said anything,” she said.
An email seeking comment from Mewhinney was not returned as of press time.
Pfeil said she gains her experience from being a deputy district attorney for 11 years and prosecuting pretty much every case that there is from murders to low-level misdemeanors, along with some civil work earlier in her career.
As to why Pfeil decided to apply, she said everyone has ambitions and goals in life.
“I like challenges and I think this would be challenging,” she said. “I think I have a good judicial temperament for the bench. I’m fair and reasonable. I don’t rush to judgment.”
Airola, who has a long history of superior court judges in his family, said he feels he could offer stability and cohesiveness to the legal process in the county.
“Judge Mewhinney has provided some good leadership as far as his abilities to run an effective courtroom,” he said. “I felt I could follow in his footsteps to keep the legal process flowing smoothly and running efficiently.”
Airola said becoming a superior court judge has not been a major goal, and he only applied after individuals in the community urged him to do so.
If he does receive the appointment, he would have to give up his practice.
“I am prepared to do that,” he said. “Any judgeship requires total, 100 percent dedication, long hours of service and work and of course a very heavy case load.
“It requires a very strong work ethic. I believe I have that work ethic and the ability to commit long hours to public service.”
“There are many qualified individuals who have submitted their name,” Airola said. “I am only one of six. I think that the governor has many qualified individuals to choose from, I don’t feel that one can really guess what the governor could do, given these volatile times that we’re in.”
Contact Joel Metzger at firstname.lastname@example.org