Los Angeles County has never elected a public defender to a judge’s office.
A group of three public defenders and a plaintiff attorney have announced that they will run for judicial seats in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. A public defender has never been elected to a judge’s office in Los Angeles County. Holly Hancock (Office No. 70), Anna Reitano (Office No. 60), Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes (Office No. 67), and Carolyn “Jiyoung” Park (Office No. 118) are running together on a slate being called “The Defenders of Justice.”
Hancock, a candidate for Office 70, was advised to omit the title of “public defender” when she ran in November 2018. Instead she used “attorney-at-law” strategically to avoid the stereotype that public defenders are “not as well prepared, not as educated, and will throw open the doors of the jail to let everybody out.” Hancock argues that the experience she’s gained as a public defender is an advantage on the bench because she can see all sides of a story.
“I think in terms of the whole, you know, what’s going to happen? I think not just in terms of immediacy, right now. Door number one is county jail, door number two is state prison. I think in terms of what’s gonna happen after that, because that’s what makes a community safe … I protect the [people’s] rights because I can look at all sides, all perspectives. I look at people as people.”
Park, candidate for Judicial Office 118, agrees: “Public defenders, or plaintiff attorneys in civil cases, are working directly with people who have been impacted by our laws or who have had their rights violated, either in civil or criminal cases.” (Park is also a member of Ground Game LA, Knock LA’s parent organization). While not a public defender herself, Park comes from a career as an attorney at a public union — where she represented members in cases such as unfair termination and retaliation — and now has her own practice. “For those attorneys, it’s their job to hear the stories of the community, listen, and present those stories in a way that a judge or a jury can understand and then see that justice is called for in the situation.”
The Los Angeles County Judiciary lacks diversity: white people make up only 26.1% of Los Angeles County’s population but 49.4% of its trial court judges. Hancock, who is Black, hopes to diversify the bench in terms of thought and perspective: “I believe that there has to be diversity on the bench. I’m coming from a perspective where I was a worker.” Hancock began her career as a public defender after years of working for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) representing workers’ grievances on health issues, maternity leave, and safety. “I know the people who come in front of the bench. I have a good idea of their stories.”
Although judicial candidates nominated by the governor of California must be vetted by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation before being appointed to office, the only requirements to run for a judicial election are that the candidate must have been an attorney admitted to practice law in the state, or must have served as a judge of a court of record in California for at least 10 years immediately preceding election or appointment.
The California Committee on Judicial Ethics bars candidates from speaking on how they will act on the bench. As a result, voters rarely know what a candidate stands for, creating an advantage for judicial candidates with wealthy investors — most often, deputy district attorneys. Park believes that working in a district attorney’s office leads to biases that will negatively impact such candidates’ ability to do the job. “District attorneys represent the interests of the county, the state, the government, and their job is to prosecute members of the community. I’m not saying that all defendants in criminal cases should win, nor that all plaintiffs in civil cases deserve to win; but when it’s your job to always be advocating for management or the state or the government — in my experience, those attorneys end up having biases. That’s why we need to have candidates with a diversity of thought and litigation backgrounds.”
Reitano says that there are skilled district attorneys, but considers the culture within the DA’s office “disturbing.” She believes that district attorneys habitually overcharge cases to inflate their status. “They say that they’re saving everyone from horrible criminals, but release them a year or two later because they can’t afford to keep them in prison. Then they do it again because they’ve done nothing to keep them out of the system to begin with.”
Reitano decided to run for judge after an experience in the courtroom: in mid-December 2020, while COVID cases in LA County jails were spiking, a judge put one of her clients in custody to punish him for showing up late to court. Reitano says she lost sleep over the situation. She looked into how that person became a judge and learned that he had been elected. Initially she encouraged others to run for office, but realized that she was no different than those she was encouraging. “I deserve a seat at the table.”
Lashley-Haynes, candidate for Office No. 67, has invested her time outside of the courtroom advocating for those who need help. She served on the national board of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association — a nonprofit founded in 1911, dedicated to providing legal services to people from low-income communities and protecting the rights of the oppressed. Lashley-Haynes is also involved at a local level, she coordinated a hot meal program for a local charter school, and organized a gift drive for unaccompanied children in detention camps during the Trump administration. She says her passion for advocacy inspired her to run for a seat as a Superior Court judge. “I also decided I was going to remain really true to myself. … For me, that consists of a lot of community building, and getting out there in the community meeting people… I’m not going to go around, you know, hounding big money people for giant donations.”
Biased judges can wield power irresponsibly, but fair judges can use that power for community good. Park advocates for expanding and funding diversion programs. She says the purpose of diversion is to address the root issues of what causes people to violate the law. “If [the defendant] has a substance abuse issue, diversion can involve rehabilitation; if they have anger issues, they can be sent to anger management courses.”
Reitano agrees. Many of her current clients struggle with mental health issues and benefit from diversion programs. Reitano believes that an increased use of court-ordered diversions would create enough demand to fund more mental health options and address the underlying causes of crime. “Otherwise,” says Reitano, “This won’t go away no matter how many people you arrest.”
The public often skips voting for judicial seats, but Hancock, Lashley-Haynes, Reitano, and Park urge voters to think about the judges that they’re electing and make a choice. “This is the only time that the people have to participate in the judicial process,” says Reitano. “It could be a big deal.”
CORRECTION 3/15/21: A previous version of this article stated that Reitano decided to run after a judge put one of her clients in custody to punish him for showing up late to a trial.