No debate scheduled so far in Superior Court race
Sitting judges rarely face challenges at election time. But it’s happening this year in Calaveras Superior Court Department 2.
Judge Hugh K. Swift, who was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in December of last year and sworn into office on Jan. 17 this year, is being challenged by Tim Healy, a deputy district attorney in San Joaquin County who lives in Valley Springs.
Healy said he decided to run because he believes his years of experience as a prosecutor make him more qualified to be a judge.
Swift says he’s more qualified thanks to his years as a court researcher, a court commissioner, as a private practice attorney and as a court executive. And he says the extensive vetting required before his appointment confirmed his qualifications.
Much of the dispute between the candidates is over criminal law. Healy says that the thousands of cases he’s handled, including narcotics, violent crimes and parental abductions, clearly make him most suited for criminal matters.
Swift acknowledges that much of his experience – including his time as a private practice attorney – is in civil litigation, or noncriminal matters such as family law. But he said he is now handling criminal cases. And he says that civil matters make up a majority of the workload for the court.
Healy, in contrast, says that by sheer numbers there are far more criminal matters handled by the local court, even if many of them are misdemeanors and quickly resolved. He says criminal experience is crucial because of the serious constitutional issues that arise when a person is searched or arrested.
“You are dealing with people’s freedom and their liberty,” Healy said.
The two have both been campaigning largely by attending public events or knocking on doors and having one-on-one conversations with voters. It remains unknown whether the two will ever meet in a face-to-face forum or debate.
Healy says he’s willing.
“I was approached and I made it clear I was willing to participate in any forum anybody wanted to participate in,” Healy said.
Swift said that he is willing to debate, but that he was already booked on the date proposed for a debate, and that he also wants to have some say in how the debate is structured and the kinds of questions asked.
“Judges are restrained by the canons of judicial ethics in terms of what they can discuss and comment on during a judicial campaign,” Swift said.
So far, no agreement has been reached that would allow for a debate.
“Quite frankly, I am disappointed we are not going to have an opportunity to talk,” Healy said.
The two candidates differ on the question of partisan endorsements.
Healy is endorsed by the Republican Party of Calaveras County.
Swift said it is inappropriate for a judge – considered a nonpartisan official in California – to accept a partisan endorsement.
“Judges need to be independent and can’t be influenced by any partisan or popular interests,” Swift said.
Healy’s take: “I can’t think of anything more partisan than being appointed by the Governor, Jerry Brown.”
Swift has gathered endorsements, including two dozen from fellow judges such as retired Calaveras Superior Court Judge Douglas V. Mewhinney and soon-to-retire Calaveras Superior Court Judge John E. Martin.
Swift does have some personal information posted on his website – his membership in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Angels Camp and the fact that he was one of the original partners in Newsome-Harlow Wines. Little of it, however, offers any suggestion of his personal views on issues of the day.
Healy’s campaign and website, in contrast, announces he’s a life member of the National Rifle Association.
Asked whether he worries that gun regulation in states like California is undermining the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Healy declined to discuss any specific laws and said his personal opinions are not relevant to how he would act from the bench.
“I will follow the laws of the state of California whether I like that law or not,” Healy said.
Swift says that his administrative experience is another reason voters should choose him. He notes that the court will soon be transitioning to a new case management system – one that will make it easier to access court documents online – and that he’s been involved in developing the system.
The retirement of longtime Judge John E. Martin at the end of December is also a factor, Swift said. (In a separate race, Court Commissioner Grant Barrett and Calaveras County Deputy District Attorney Dana Pfeil are vying for the seat Martin will vacate in Department 1.)
If Swift is elected, his seniority will mean he serves as presiding judge the next four years and can help lead the transition to the new system, he said.
“If I am not elected there is no one else that has the technical experience that I have that would be needed to effectively lead the court,” Swift said.
Healy disagrees with that assessment.
Before he began his legal career, Healy worked in an auto parts business his father owned.
“To be fair, it is a different type of experience,” Healy said. “But I think it is fair to say administrative experience is administrative experience.”
“I have absolutely no doubt that I will handle those appropriately,” Healy said of the administrative duties he would shoulder if elected judge.