Changing Face of Los Angeles| Reflected in Judicial Candidates

     LOS ANGELES (CNS) — The extraordinary diversity within the population of Los Angeles is reflected in a judicial race that pits a British-born prosecutor against a Vietnamese American civil litigator in a race that has brought background, experience and temperament to the fore.
     One candidate was educated in London and steeped in the culture that produced the “Rumpole of the Bailey” television series. He attended Los Angeles-based Loyola Law School and has lengthy experience as a deputy district attorney in the Los Angeles criminal system.
     The other is the child of Vietnamese refugees who attended Harvard Law School, has extensive Democratic backing, and is working as a deputy to Attorney General Kamala Harris who is leading the race to become the new U.S. senator from California.
     Deputy District Attorney David Berger and Deputy Attorney General Kim Nguyen are vying for one of four spots on the Los Angeles Superior Court, the biggest court in the nation. They are fueling their campaigns through word of mouth, social media and slate mailers.
     Berger, a rosy-faced, gregarious Englishman, said that as a child he was fed a steady diet of the British series “Rumpole of the Bailey” and the American series “Perry Mason,” cultivating a love affair with the courtroom.
     Berger, 59, now lives in West Los Angeles and works at the Airport Courthouse.”I wanted to be part of that world,” he said in an interview in the courthouse cafeteria. “I loved the drama of the courtroom. I love the precision of it. The artistry of it. When Judge Fox said he was going to retire, I thought this was obviously something I should do. People really admire the way he is as a jurist – scrupulously fair. He’s either liked or disliked equally by both sides. That’s what I think a judge should be.”
     Nguyen would be the only active Vietnamese-American on the court’s bench in a county where 15 percent of the county’s 10 million people identify as Asian, in a region where a majority of the population speaks one of 224 languages other than English at home.
     Nguyen, 40, lives in South Pasadena, on the other side of the Los Angeles metropolis from West Los Angeles.
     During an interview in a downtown coffee shop, her eyes glimmered through studious glasses as she described how her parents arrived in the United States in 1975 as refugees.
     “My first memories are of a tiny cramped apartment on the border of Echo Park and Chinatown. My dad, his first job in this country was bussing tables at a restaurant. My mom sewed garments,” Nguyen said. “Over the years they went back to school and through good luck, a lot of help from other people, hard work, they made their way into the middle class. That’s my story. That’s in many ways a perspective I can bring to the bench.”
     The candidates have amassed key endorsements from political organizations, newspapers, unions and judges.
     Berger has the support of Superior Court Judge Elden Fox who is retiring from the seat both candidates want to fill. The prosecutor is also endorsed by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, police groups and the British-American Bar Association. He has won endorsements from the Los Angeles Times and the Metropolitan News Enterprise.
     Nguyen has cast her endorsement net wider. Like her opponent, she has the support of local law enforcement groups and prosecutors. But she also lists members of congress, statewide officials including Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and a long list of Democratic groups and unions such as the SEIU which represents most court workers.
     Berger meanwhile hopes his vast experience as a criminal trial lawyer sticks in voters’ minds and gives him an edge over an opponent who won 100,000 more votes in June’s primary contest.
     “I’ve got 20 years experience basically doing what judges do, seeing how courts operate, and she has none,” said Berger who moved to the United States in 1989.
     Nguyen resists Berger’s characterization. She is a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law School and has sixteen years experience as a civil litigator under her belt. As a Deputy Attorney General she works on constitutional law and election law cases.
     Nguyen has handled one trial, defending the state attorney general in a recent case involving a challenge by the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian, conservative, non-profit group over a tax form that requires a list of donors. According to court records, the judge who heard the case has not yet ruled.
     “People who understand civil litigation understand that the vast majority of civil litigation does not culminate in a trial,” Nguyen said in an interview in a downtown coffee shop this week. “Does that mean everything leading up to that point is insignificant or not indicative of the ability to preside over a courtroom? Of course not.”
     The Los Angeles County Bar Association agrees. A panel of 29 members concluded she is “Well Qualified” for the bench.
     “I think that demonstrates there’s no question about my qualifications for the bench or my experience,” Nguyen said.
     In April, the Los Angeles Times chose to endorse Berger, who received a “Not Qualified” rating from the same panel at the bar association.
     “The Times often agrees with the committee’s assessments,” the paper said in an editorial. “But not always. The Times nevertheless finds him to be the best of the candidates in this particular race.”
     The paper called Nguyen “keenly intelligent and capable” but said that she “could benefit from another few years of experience before taking the bench.”
     Berger contends that the bar panel’s negative assessment is tied to articles he wrote criticizing former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich on his blog, Los Angeles Dragnet. In one post he included an image that superimposed a clown’s hat on Trutanich’s head.
     The chair of the bar’s evaluation committee, Jerrold Abeles, wrote an April 25 letter to Berger: “(I)n its opinion, your temperament and demeanor in the context of political activities evidences a lack of the temperament necessary to perform the judicial function satisfactorily.”
     Berger believes the decision was highly politicized.
     “When I went into that interview there was nothing but questioning about the Dragnet and my comments about Carmen Trutanich, none of which have anything to do with my qualifications to be a judge,” Berger said. “So, it was very clear to me that this was a sort of a pretext.”
     In a phone inteview, Abeles said the bar evaluation committee’s interviews and discussions are confidential.
     “He was given the same consideration that all the other candidates were given,” Abeles said. “We stand by our process. It’s extraordinarily thorough.”
          In another setback, a California appeals court issued an unpublished Aug. 31 decision in People v. James Jongho Jin finding Berger had “engaged in prejudicial misconduct that violated Jin’s right to a fair trial” in a restoration of sanity case.
     During cross-examination Berger asked Jin: “And you’ll be back in another year if they don’t [allow you] to be restored?”
     Though the jury was told not to consider Berger’s comment during its deliberations Jin successfully argued that the statement had denied him the right to a fair trial.
     Berger believes the court got the case wrong and said it was the first time in 20 years that a case he had prosecuted had been overturned. The opinion was issued “remarkably quickly,” he said, and a responding brief came from the attorney general’s office where Nguyen works.
     “Can I prove that there was any kind of impropriety going on there? No. Does it look that way? Certainly. Should the attorney general’s office have recused themselves and said ‘Look, we’re not going to get involved when one of our employees is in a race against the person that’s been accused of misconduct.’ They didn’t do that,” Berger said.
     Nguyen was aghast at the idea that she had any influence on the Second Appellate District’s opinion. She noted that the office has more than a thousand employees and that her section does not handle appeal writs and trials.
     “Let’s just clear that up right off the bat. I had no idea that appeal was happening, and that he was the prosecutor in that appeal,” she said. “I became aware of the case when the court of appeal issued its decision. So, no, to suggest that somehow I would influence a public process in order to gain an advantage in this election is a) absolutely untrue and b) if that’s the suggestion I think it’s… I’m just going to restrain myself and say, I don’t think it’s appropriate to suggest that at all.”
     Berger was bullish about his chances.
     “One word sums up why I believe I have what it takes,” Berger said. “And that’s experience. And there’s no substitute for it.”
     Nguyen circled back to her own qualifications in concluding her interview.
     “I feel this race is about who is most qualified for this seat in terms of experience, judicial temperament, integrity, honesty,” she said. “I believe I have those qualities and I believe I’m the best candidate for this job.”