New leadership for courtrooms |

New leadership for courtrooms

by Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Something practically unheard of has happened in the judicial system of El Dorado County: three of the six judgeships are up for grabs in the March primary election.

“The number of offices open is sort of an anomaly statewide,” said Suzanne Kingsbury, presiding judge of El Dorado County Superior Court system. “I haven’t heard of another court with so many open seats. It’s very unusual to say the least.”

Opportunity abounds because three West Slope judges decided to retire: Gregory Haas, Thomas Smith and Patrick Riley. The three vacant seats have drawn 12 candidates. In South Lake Tahoe, incumbents Kingsbury and Jerald Lasarow, are uncontested. Eddie Keller also is unchallenged for his seat on the West Slope.

With the large turnover in the court system, Kingsbury expects some of her time will be spent mentoring new judges and hopefully streamlining court business on the West Slope. She also plans to set up a cross-training system so the county judges gain equal experience handling civil and criminal cases.

“Historically we’ve had a bench weighted toward judges with experience in the criminal arena,” Kingsbury said. “In a small court system, it’s important for us to be flexible. By rotating assignments and exposing new judges to a variety of different case types we will be more efficient and be able to better serve the public.”

Kingsbury was voted in as presiding judge by the other judges in 1999. She said her colleagues likely will remain assigned either to South Lake Tahoe or the West Slope, but they will work in both places when a judge is on vacation or a trial has a change of venue.

“It is very important for the people in Tahoe to care about the election of all the judges,” she said. “It will shape the way our court looks in the future.”

Judges serve six-year terms. Some voters may be confused this election, since judges are running for offices, rather than departments, the previous distinction.

Kingsbury said the change in term is nothing more than a technicality required by an election code.

Office 1 (Placerville)

, 51, served as the superior court commissioner on the West Slope from 1987 to 1996. She dealt with cases of family law, probate and mental health. She also served as research attorney for the superior court from 1978 to 1987, and was a pro tem judge at the El Dorado County Superior Court and Placer County Superior Court. Since leaving the bench in 1996, she has worked in private dispute resolution in family law matters. Muse and her husband, Bill, have lived in El Dorado County since 1973 and have seven children. Their youngest is 7 years old.

, 60, was a pro tem judge in El Dorado County for five years and now is a referee for El Dorado County Superior Court, which is a judge who decides small claims and traffic issues. He’s been an attorney for more than 30 years and represented more than 50 clients before the California Supreme Court, California Court of Appeal and the appellate department of the Supreme Court.

“I feel I have one of the most extensive and diversified legal backgrounds of any candidate running for any of the judicial positions in El Dorado County,” he said. “While on the bench I have tried to treat every party as I would want to be treated. As often as possible, I have tried to explain the basis for each of the hundreds of cases I have decided so that whether a person agrees or disagrees with my findings they at least have a better understanding of how the result was achieved.”

Phimister has lived full time in El Dorado County since 1985. He lives with his wife, Marchelle, on a ranch in Shingle Springs.

, 55, became an attorney in 1978 and practices construction and personal injury litigation and has experience in class-action suits and large-scale litigation. Woll said he has practiced every type of law one can think of, which is one reason he is prepared to become judge.

“I think I can do a very good job being very fair and making the justice system work expeditiously,” he said. “It’s a problem in every county.”

Woll has lived in El Dorado County since 1981. He was a computer engineer for eight years before he passed the bar exam. Woll believes the county could save a lot of money if it invested in video conferencing, especially regarding cases against defendants who live out of town.

“I think the thing that says the most is that I’m hired by other lawyers and judges to represent them,” he said.

Woll, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, lives with his wife, Sharyn, in Placerville.

Office 5 (Placerville)

, 59, is a private attorney in Placerville handling criminal, juvenile and family law, as well as nonprofit legal work. He was chief assistant district attorney in El Dorado County for 14 years. Before he passed the bar exam in 1980, he spent more than 12 years as a California Highway Patrol officer.

“I believe the operation of courtroom can be improved upon, and in fact, should be,” he said. “The people of El Dorado County deserve a judge who is efficient, knows the issues involved in the cases before him, and is fair. It needs a judge who will efficiently organize the caseload, move the cases through the court and not allow them to languish.”

Heape and his wife, Carol, have six children.

, 59, is a private attorney in Placerville who practices criminal, family, civil, juvenile and dependency law. Before he became an attorney in 1976, he was a deputy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He is also a judge pro tem in El Dorado County Superior Court and traffic court.

“I decided to run in August of this year,” he said. “Judge Riley encouraged me to run for judge because of the need for a dependency calendar. It’s become a complex and time-consuming area of the law.”

To be a judge he said it takes “a certain temperament and demeanor. Anybody can make a decision, but there needs to be a respect. There’s a tremendous trust being placed on you when you sit in judgment.” Proud is married to his wife, Mavis. They have three children.

“For Justice” is campaign slogan. The 53-year-old has been chief assistant district attorney for El Dorado County since 1998. O’Brien was a deputy district attorney at South Lake Tahoe from 1989 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, he served as assistant district attorney at South Lake Tahoe. He said he has the skill to be judge partly because he’s good at making tough calls.

“If people need to be held accountable they will need to be held accountable,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to get probation and you violate it, then you go to prison. If you don’t hold people responsible then you’re sending a message that that’s OK.”

One of his goals as judge is to allocate resources more efficiently. O’Brien said he will work to settle less serious cases, mostly misdemeanors, before they go to trial.

“With three new judgeships open, there’s an opportunity to change the system and the way things work,” he said.

O’Brien’s wife Susan also is an attorney. They have three children.

, 48, last ran for judge in El Dorado County in 1990. She has been an attorney since 1978 and lived in the county for more than 20 years. “I believe one of the very important areas of law in this county has been family law and right now the sitting judges don’t have extensive family law experience,” she said. “Family law is very important for me. But I also have a very broad background that includes civil litigation, guardianship, criminal law, appellate work.” Pechner has been a pro tem judge at municipal and justice courts and done public defender work. Her campaign slogan “Still not one of the good ole boys” was built from her slogan in 1990, “Not one of the good ole boys.”

She lives with her husband in Garden Valley. They have two children.

, 55, has been an attorney since 1988. A judge pro tem for 10 years, he has heard and decided more than 1,500 cases.

“My whole life is pointing toward this position and I am ready to do the job,” he said. “I think all decisions are important because each one affects people’s lives. As judge, I will impose stricter, swifter sentences for persons convicted in domestic violence, child abuse, and other violent crimes where lenient sentences put the public at risk.” Valerio, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, is married to his wife Jolie. They live in Placerville.

Office 6 (Cameron Park)

, 44, began his legal career in 1983 as a military lawyer. In 1986, he became the chief lawyer for a military base in Japan where he tackled administrative, criminal and political legal issues. Becker entered private practice in 1989 focusing on real estate, personal injury and business litigation. He has tried more than 400 cases to verdict. Over the last 10 years, he has devoted an increasing amount of time to being judge pro tem for El Dorado County Superior Court. “Everyone in the judicial system, attorneys and judges alike, can promote the single most important value in our society — the equal, predictable and fair resolution of criminal charges and civil conflicts,” he said. “Justice is the glue that keeps a diverse community together.” As judge, his first priority is to rearrange judicial assignments to make more judges available to handle family law and juvenile matters. Second, he will develop the court staff, reporters and bailiffs into a cohesive team. Third, Becker wants to ensure the courts are accessible. He said more cases are coming in “pro per,” where people act as their own lawyer. These cases need more judicial resources to facilitate their resolution, he said.

Becker and his wife, Judy, have two children.

, 48, graduated from law school in 1981, passing the state bar the same year. He has handled civil and criminal cases, but the last 10 years his focus has been on defending hospitals, doctors and nurses in professional liability cases. McKinnon, a resident of El Dorado County for 12 years, also passed the Nevada bar.

“I have 20 years experience in practicing law,” he said. “I understand how the legal system is supposed to work and how it can bless the lives of the citizens of this great community. I believe that my combined years in working both in the community and in the legal profession will enable me to be the type of judge that the citizens both want and deserve.”

McKinnon and his wife, Candace, have five children.

Her campaign slogan is “Honesty, Experience, Independence.”

, 34, is a deputy district attorney for El Dorado County and has been an attorney for 11 years.

“I am willing to hold law enforcement leaders in this community accountable for their conduct,” she said. “We need independent judges who will enforce the law fairly regardless of the politics involved in a particular case. I am not afraid to make decisions that will protect our community and preserve the legal rights of all persons.”

Nelson’s focus for the district attorney’s office has been the prosecution of statutory rape and the sexual abuse of children.

She has three children.

, 44, is an assistant district attorney for El Dorado County. He has more than 12 years experience in civil and criminal practice. He’s been a prosecutor for nine years handling more than 1,000 trials, 96 of which were murder trials. Before he became a lawyer, he was a police officer in Oklahoma City for four years.

“While criminal matters, unfortunately, consume a majority of the limited judicial resources in the county, my experience qualifies me to handle both civil and criminal matters,” he said. “I am committed to ensuring that civil litigants have their matters handled expeditiously. As a judge, I will be tough on crime, but fair and impartial. I will treat others with respect, manage my courtroom efficiently, and have a strong sense of equity and justice, all while maintaining a good sense of humor.”

His wife, Mary, is a staff attorney at the California Department of Social Services.

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