Voters are at a severe disadvantage when trying to determine the best judicial candidates in contested judge races.
Candidates are forbidden from discussing any substantive issues that could conceivably come before them if elected, so these campaigns are built almost entirely around experience, reputation and the assessments made by interest groups, including the local bar association and unions.
Two races are on the ballot, one with three candidates, including an incumbent, and another with two.
In the two-candidate "Office 21" race, we believe Julianne Sylva is the superior choice, in spite of the more diverse experience of her opponent, Dennis Lempert.
Sylva, a deputy district attorney for the last 23 years, is a prosecutor who has shown consistent concern and compassion for both crime victims and the accused, especially with regards to juvenile and family-law matters and those involving indigent defendants.
She won the support of the women's lawyers section of the Santa Clara County Bar Association, an important endorsement, although her opponent, defense attorney Dennis Lempert was endorsed by the full rank and file of the bar association. The seat was formerly held by Judge Kevin McKenney, who retired, creating the open seat.
Sylva has rotated among all the divisions in the D.A.'s office, and last June was named the county's human-trafficking prosecutor, a position that involves working with law-enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute sex-trafficking cases.
She also currently serves as the district attorney's truancy specialist. With the support of local judges, she developed a Parent Truancy Court that brings parents of chronic truants before the court where they can work out plans to get the students back in school and avoid prosecution.
Sylva has not only been recognized locally as an expert in child-abduction matters, but she has traveled to Mexico to train lawyers, judges, social workers and educators about Alerta Amber!, the Mexican version of our Amber Alert program. Fluent in Spanish, she worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to create and implement the Alerta Amber! program.
Lempert, who filed for the race at the last minute, will appear on the ballot as "D A Lempert," a campaign ploy that has created a backlash in the legal community. His long career includes stints as a deputy district attorney, police officer and, most recently, a defense attorney. His experience includes trying death-penalty cases and he helped start the county's consumer-fraud unit before moving into private practice, representing mostly criminal defendants.
We urge voters to give Sylva their support on June 3.
Three candidates are running for the "Office 24" slot on the bench. Our choice is Matt Harris, a 23-year veteran prosecutor in the D.A.'s office. He is running against incumbent Judge Diane Ritchie and challenger Annrae Angel, a criminal-defense attorney. It is the first time in 16 years that a sitting judge has faced a challenge.
Judge Ritchie, a former deputy district attorney, has struggled on the bench since being elected in 2008 and was voted "not qualified" by the county bar association, a stunning rebuke. The consensus view among attorneys practicing in Santa Clara County is that she needs to be replaced.
Both Harris and Angel were viewed as qualified by the bar association, but Harris received its endorsement by a large margin. Angel won the endorsement of the women lawyer's section.
Among those two, we believe Harris is more qualified due to his broad experience as a prosecutor and his strong reputation for fairness. He currently serves on the D.A.'s major crimes team and has done stints on assignment to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Angel, who lives in Santa Cruz County, has a private criminal-defense practice in San Jose that specializes in representing indigent felony defendants, including gang members. We applaud her work and legal values, but don't think she has the diversity in her legal experience to recommend her over Harris.
We recommend Matt Harris for Superior Court Judge.