May 30, 2010 6:56 PM by Chris Welty
SAN DIEGO (AP) - A group of conservative attorneys say they are
on a mission from God to unseat four California judges in a rare
challenge that is turning a traditionally snooze-button election
into what both sides call a battle for the integrity of U.S.
Vowing to be God's ambassadors on the bench, the four San Diego
Superior Court candidates are backed by pastors, gun enthusiasts,
and opponents of abortion and same-sex marriages.
"We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian
values," said Craig Candelore, a family law attorney who is one of
the group's candidates. "Unfortunately, God has called upon us to
do this only with the judiciary."
The challenge is unheard of in California, one of 33 states to
directly elect judges. Critics say the campaign is aimed at packing
the courts with judges who adhere to the religious right's moral
agenda and threatens both the impartiality of the court system and
the separation of church and state.
Opponents fear the June 8 race is a strategy that could
transform courtroom benches just like some school boards, which
have seen an increasing number of Christian conservatives win seats
in cities across the country and push for such issues as prayer in
"Any organization that wants judges to subscribe to a certain
political party or certain value system or certain way of ruling to
me threatens the independence of the judiciary," San Diego
County's District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.
"Judges should be evaluated based on their qualifications and
their duty to follow the law."
The campaign by California's social conservatives comes at a
time when judges and scholars in many states are debating whether
judges should be elected or appointed, citing the danger that
campaign contributions could influence their rulings. Other states
have lifted restrictions allowing judges to express their opinions
publicly so people know what their biases are.
Special interest groups, including those representing gay
marriage opponents, have ramped up donations for judicial races in
recent years, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New
York University's school of law.
In Iowa's June 8 primary, two Republican gubernatorial
candidates have announced they favor ousting Supreme Court judges
whose unanimous decision last year legalized same-sex marriage.
"An effective way in driving policy is to try to influence who
is on the courts in a state, particularly the highest court, the
supreme court," said Adam Skaggs, counsel for the Brennan Center.
"It's cause for concern because Americans expect courts to be
places where people get a fair trial."
Most of those efforts have been aimed at state supreme courts,
not courts like San Diego Superior Court that rules on custody
battles and crime cases.
Called "Better Courts Now," the movement was the brainchild of
Don Hamer, San Diego County's late Zion Christian Fellowship pastor
who campaigned locally for California's ban on gay marriage,
Proposition 8, and vetted the candidates before he died of a heart
attack in March.
His fellow Pastor Brian Hendry and other supporters have carried
on his legacy, launching the mostly online campaign to replace the
incumbent judges - all Democrats - with Christian conservatives.
Backers include El Cajon Gun Exchange, a store that encourages
customers to fight for California's gun owners and visit the
"Better Courts Now" website before voting. Pastors have vowed to
spread the word. Hendry said the group had raised about $2,000 last
Some say it would not take much to win the traditionally low
turnout race. The election usually draws fellow judges, attorneys,
prosecutors and others closely following the legal community.
Lantz Lewis, who has been a judge for 20 years, said his
opponent's campaign is taking judicial elections in the wrong
"I have no problem with elections, but I think it really should
focus on a judge's qualifications, and it's very difficult to think
something good could come out of a partisan judicial election," he
"Better Courts Now" says it wants courts to be more
accountable to the public.
At a debate the group organized at the Rancho del Rey church in
San Marcos, a sprawling city of strip malls and suburban earth-tone
homes perched atop green canyons, candidate Harold J. Coleman Jr.
told supporters it's fair for voters to know a judge's values.
"That doesn't mean he won't follow the law," Coleman said as
his supporters faced a wall with the words, "Live Jesus."
About 25 attendees broke into prayer at the church, which was in
an office complex shared by an Irish dance studio and gymnasium.
Organizers invited the incumbents but none came.
Lewis said "Better Courts Now" appears to be seeking
allegiance to its views - not accountability.
"That's one of the reasons, we declined the invitation to go to
that forum," he said. "I just don't think judges should be in a
situation, where they are asked, 'Do you believe in God, abortion,
If judges proclaim to be either liberals or conservatives,
people will feel the decks are either stacked against them or in
their favor. If only one parent goes to church and the other does
not in a child custody battle, a judge proclaimed to be a
conservative Christian may favor the churchgoer, he said.
The district attorney and nearly every judge on the bench are
endorsing incumbents Lewis, Robert Longstreth and Joel Wohlfeil,
rated by the San Diego County Bar Association as "well
qualified," its highest grade.
The bar rated Candelore and his running mates Bill Trask and
Larry "Jake" Kincaid as "lacking some or all of the qualities of
professional ability, experience, competence, integrity and
temperament indicative of fitness to perform the judicial function
in a satisfactory mode."
Trask is a lawyer for a mortgage firm and Kincaid is a family
The bar said it did not have enough information to rate Coleman,
an arbitrator for business disputes. He faces Judge DeAnn Salcido,
who also received the bar's lowest mark of "lacking
The Better Courts Now candidates accused the bar of being swayed
Candelore said a victory would mark only the beginning: "If we
can take our judiciary, we can take our legislature and our