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. courts.
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 classrooms.
"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 month.
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 direction.
"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 said.
"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, gay marriage?'"
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 law attorney.
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 qualifications."
The Better Courts Now candidates accused the bar of being swayed by politics.
Candelore said a victory would mark only the beginning: "If we can take our judiciary, we can take our legislature and our executive branch."
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