Garcia: Superior Court race should focus on the best jurist

Justice may not be blind, but it should not be affiliated with political parties, donors and campaign organizers.

And even here in the land of political correctness, it shouldn’t be identified by sexual orientation.

But in San Francisco, things have a way of sliding off the rails, which is pretty much what’s happened in the election for a Superior Court judge next month, when voters will pick someone for the bench based on factual evidence or campaign slate cards.

Based on our history, don’t expect a fair ruling.

The local legal community has its robes in a twist over the potential fate of Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer, a highly respected jurist who has the near-unanimous backing of his peers on the bench, yet has been targeted by a member of The City’s gay and lesbian community in the name of diversity and progressive values.

Ulmer is being challenged by gay lawyer Michael Nava, who spent most of his career writing crime novels until he came up with a new story line and established a terrific case for why judges should never be elected by people who know almost nothing about their qualifications.

I could make another strong argument that judges should never be elected for the simple reason that they are gay or straight, black or purple, but that would not be in keeping with current trends that have seen people elevated to the bench primarily because they received the backing of the local Democratic Party. And that is exactly what happened a few years ago when former Supervisor Geraldo Sandoval, who many people doubted as a competent public official, beat out a sitting judge through the backing of the local political machine.

Nava is at least qualified, and serves as a staff attorney for California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno. Yet, Nava broke the unwritten rule of challenging a judge who by all standards is doing superior work, under the guise of adding diversity to the bench.

You could certainly have made that case when George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson were governors and appointing largely straight white males to court seats around the state. But the judicial landscape has changed dramatically in the past 15 years — there are at least 11 gay and lesbian judges on the San Francisco Superior Court, and last week Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed another lesbian to the bench.

But in San Francisco, labels are cheap and easy to come by, which is why Nava and his backers can throw out terms like “Republican-appointed” and raise eyebrows among the local electorate. And it’s also why several of the gay and lesbian judges appeared at an LGBT event recently to state why they are backing Ulmer — and to note on record the reasons they’re upset that Nava termed them “hypocrites” for backing a straight judge in the race.

It’s because Ulmer is exceptionally good at his job and deserves to keep it. Don’t expect that to appear on your local Democratic Party mailer.

“We don’t want judges who when faced with controversial decisions are wondering what the political ramifications of those decisions will be,” Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy told me. “I don’t know if you achieve diversity by making the bench a more overtly political place.”

When McCarthy, who is gay, ran for judge in 1996, he could honestly make a claim of the need for more diversity on the bench. He said that is no longer the case.

Yet, people in The City’s various politically affiliated organizations continue to make it, which is why Nava’s endorsements read like a veritable who’s who of San Francisco’s PC power lineup.

Ulmer, on the other hand, has become the point man for restoring sanity to the process of judicial appointments and elections. Ulmer, who was criticized for not running a stronger campaign in the June primary (he and Nava are in a runoff because neither gained a majority of votes), now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being a judge on the campaign trail — words that should never be linked.

This all points to the reason why average voters shouldn’t be electing judges. The race between Ulmer and Nava couldn’t make that case more clearly.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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