NEVADA COUNTY, Calif. — It’s not the most crowded field Nevada County has ever seen for a judicial seat. And it’s certainly not been the most headline-grabbing contest.
The honors for both those distinctions might belong to a 1996 race, which saw 10 contenders in the primary and gained national press when candidate Bill Litchfield offered to wash the feet of every lawyer in Nevada County.
Litchfield made his foot-washing offer in a letter mailed to every attorney in Nevada County, a gesture of atonement he felt necessary because members of the Nevada County Bar Association had ranked him near the bottom in a survey of judicial qualities.
The letter resulted in an invitation to appear on the David Letterman show, but in the end, no one showed up to have their feet washed — and Litchfield ended up losing the run-off election to Kathleen Butz. Litchfield also was part of a six-person race in 2006, which eventually resulted in a run-off won by Tom Anderson over Ray Shine.
It is not uncommon to see a half-dozen candidates for a judicial seat that is opening up because of retirement, noted attorney Jeffrey Lake, one of the five candidates in the June 3 primary for the seat being vacated by Nevada County Superior Court Judge Sean Dowling.
Part of the reason for that, he said, is because it is rare to challenge a seated judge. This year, the only other judicial seat up for a vote is that of Linda Sloven, who was appointed in December 2012. She is running unopposed.
Lake is facing Nevada County assistant district attorney Anna Ferguson, federal prosecutor Robert Tice-Raskin, longtime local attorney Jeff Ingram and Superior Court legal research attorney Angela L. Bradrick.
The biggest challenge these candidates face is in how to distinguish themselves from the pack, especially in a judicial contest, where they are bound by a state code of ethics.
And, in fact, Bradrick said, they have chosen to play fair.
“Everybody has their strengths — I can’t think of anything terrible about any candidate,” she said. “The race has been very positive — we’ve been very encouraging to each other.
“We had one meeting scheduled where all five candidates were supposed to attend, but due to clerical error, one was not invited,” Bradrick continued. “The remaining four of us unanimously, without hesitation chose not to proceed that day because it was fundamentally unfair.”
Bradrick might have the steepest uphill battle, as a candidate who has toiled behind the scenes as a legal research attorney in the court system and who has limited name recognition among the general public.
Jeff Ingram seems to be running somewhat of a stealth campaign, filing his declaration of intent to run literally minutes before the deadline and choosing not to accept monetary contributions.
“I might be handicapping (myself),” he said. “I’m hoping my length of time in the county and my community service is worth more than money, more than printing up a sign and sticking it on a corner somewhere, more than sending out postcards.”
Tice-Raskin has been running an aggressive race managed by Joey Jordan, who served as campaign manager for Tom Anderson both in 2006 and, unofficially, in 2012.
He has racked up an extensive list of endorsements, telling The Union, “I’ve got the right stuff.”
Both Lake and Ferguson arguably are more well known — but that visibility could cut both ways at the polls.
Lake represented Americans for Safe Access Nevada County locally in its efforts to block the county’s controversial medical marijuana cultivation ordinance, which was enacted in 2012.
He alluded to being known for medical marijuana advocacy by sending out a campaign mailer that reads, “Who do you want judging you? A federal prosecutor? A District Attorney? Cultivate your rights. Vote Lake for Superior Court Judge.”
Lake, who said he has “never been afraid to take on difficult, controversial cases,” denies being a medical marijuana activist and said his personal views would become irrelevant as a judge.
“If I’m advocating for ASA, that doesn’t mean I agree with them,” Lake said. “That doesn’t mean I am an activist, which I certainly am not. I’m a lawyer trying to advocate their legal position.”
Lake said he understands both sides of the medical marijuana debate and would look at each case before him on a case-by-case basis.
“You can’t say, because I advocated for ASA, therefore I’m a proponent of medical marijuana and I will make rulings in a certain way,” he said. “That would be improper. But if there was a sentencing issue, I would be able to understand the impacts that medical marijuana might have on a particular patient and whether or not incarceration is the right sentence, or there might be drug-related issues or other circumstances … People can not be prejudged, particularly medical marijuana patients. You can’t place a stigma on them.”
As assistant district attorney, Ferguson has prosecuted several high-profile cases, including homicide convictions against Steven Medlyn in 2008 and Louis James in 2010, and more recently, an attempted-murder case against Eric Hodges this spring.
But as second in command in the DA’s office, Ferguson was singled out as the cause for discontent within the ranks, with two separate letters sent to boss Cliff Newell. The first, in 2010, demanded Ferguson be reassigned from some management duties and the second, in 2012, asked for her termination.
Both Newell and Ferguson said the disaffection was due to a needed culture change within the office.
“Frankly, DA’s offices do have turnover — that’s not endemic to Nevada County,” Ferguson said.
“I feel very strongly that government workers should work eight hours a day — that’s what they are paid for. I know that was somewhat revolutionary for my employees to hear when I arrived here seven years ago. There was a bit of time getting used to actually working an eight-hour day.
“It is somewhat amusing to me that would be a contested point,” she added.
“It seems to me the public and most people work the hours they are paid for. We’re supposed to be putting our best face forward, be good representatives of local government. I held people accountable and there will always be people who don’t like that. Some don’t want to excel — that’s unfortunate, but that’s life.”
Ferguson said the low pay scale of Nevada County, in comparison to surrounding counties, has made management of the office somewhat of a struggle to attract and keep good people.
But she pointed to what she said was a great mentoring program, saying the office currently has five law clerks serving internships.