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Criminal Justice

Bar Assn. Ratings — One Of Few Tools For Voting On LA Judges — Are Supposed To Be Unbiased. Now, There Are Allegations That's Not The Case

A bronze sculpture on a black background shows a person with shoulder length curly hair who is blindfolded.
The L.A. County Bar Association's process of evaluating judicial candidates promises to be bias-free, but concerns have been raised that the process disadvantages women, people of color and non-prosecutors.
(arsenisspyros/Getty Images
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Los Angeles County Superior Court judicial candidate Holly Hancock was shocked at the two most pressing topics during her interview with members of the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s judicial evaluation committee earlier this year.

“They did not talk about my behavior in court,” Hancock said. “They didn't talk about my cases.”

Instead, her interviewers “spent time talking about my divorce. And about a previous foreclosure,” she said, adding the events were 12 and 10 years ago, respectively.

Hancock, a Black L.A. County public defender running with a slate of candidates known as the “Defenders of Justice,” was dumbfounded. “I can't be the only judicial officer who's ever had a divorce,” she said, “Give me a break.”

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Hancock, who’s running for Office No. 70, estimated she only had about 10 minutes to talk about her work responsibilities. (LACBA said it cannot comment on specific questions raised in candidates’ evaluations.)

Candidate ratings from LACBA — a private, volunteer membership group unaffiliated with the state bar — can be hugely influential for people trying to decide who to vote for in judicial races.

But some candidates have criticized the rating process, questioning whether they got a fair shake from an evaluation committee dominated by white men, prosecutors and corporate lawyers.

LACBA staunchly defends its process, saying it has not received a formal complaint from any candidates.

The 'Very Serious Concerns’ Raised

A section of Merete Rietveld's email to LACBA email Ann Park

In June, LACBA board member Merete Rietveld emailed LACBA President Ann Park, raising concerns about bias in the ratings process against women, people of color and non-prosecutors.

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“I heard directly from one of the judicial candidates that three of the women evaluated felt they were facing primarily white male panels who exhibited bias and who rated competing white males with comparable experience more highly,” Rietveld wrote in the June 14 email.

“I did notice just by looking at the ratings that public defenders were generally rated less favorably than prosecutors even with comparable experience,” Rietveld wrote, adding, “the roster of the committee shows many more prosecutors than defenders.”

Park — LACBA’s first Asian American president — wrote back to Rietveld a day later. “These are very serious concerns,” said Park, who had also helped launch LACBA’s race and social justice task force.

She indicated she was busy, suggested they loop in LACBA judicial evaluation committee chair Jerry Abeles, and asked to follow up at the end of the month.

They did not talk about my behavior in court. They didn't talk about my cases.
— Holly Hancock, judicial candidate

Initial Complaint Not Acted On

Rietveld’s term on the board ended on June 30, and she did not hear back from Park. On July 7, Rietveld tried again, but Park never replied to her follow-up email.

The reason? Park says she forgot.

“It just slipped my mind, and I didn’t follow up with it,” she told us, noting that she had been very busy at the time preparing for a trial.

“I should have known better as president of the bar, you know, to pass this on, and start the process of investigating, but I didn't do that.”

Screenshot of the confidential questionnaire cover page
A screenshot from LACBA's email survey that went out to candidate's references.

About The Ratings

LACBA has four ratings: exceptionally well qualified, well qualified, qualified, and not qualified.

Each rating is determined by peer evaluations, an interview, and a vote by a 44-member committee. If the candidate doesn’t like their rating, they can appeal. We have a detailed rundown of the process here.

Hancock said she was surprised when she received her “qualified” rating, considering her 15 years as a public defender and extensive trial experience. She felt her race, gender and status as a public defender were all factors.

Historically, “many other Black women have been getting “qualified,” she said. (Hancock also received a “qualified” rating when she ran unsuccessfully for judge in 2018.)

“The process becomes a popularity contest,” she said.

LACBA Says Candidates Have Not Filed Complaints

Abeles said the emails from Rietveld were the only complaint he or any member of the LACBA evaluation committee received on the subject.

After I contacted LACBA in October, Abeles said he let the evaluation committee know I was looking into the concerns. “I did not receive any feedback saying, ‘Boy, you know, this is about time, or anything like that,’” he said.

“I have not received a complaint from a single judicial candidate that our process was in any way flawed or biased,” Abeles added.

Abeles did not try to contact the judicial candidates as part of LACBA’s investigation into the allegations made in the emails, and he said he didn’t plan to.

“If a judicial candidate has an issue for me to address, I'm happy to do so,” he said.

So, I reached out to all the judicial candidates on the November ballot.

What 7 Current Candidates Say

Screen reads: Rated "Well Qualified" by LACBA
Candidates often display their LACBA ratings prominently on their campaign websites.

All of the seven candidates who spoke with me or provided written comments supported an investigation into the allegations in Rietveld’s emails. But opinions were split as to whether they personally experienced bias.

The four prosecutors — all of whom are rated “well qualified” — expressed confidence in LACBA and said they did not experience any bias during the evaluation process.

Renee Yolande Chang, a deputy district attorney running for Office No. 70, called the process “very thorough,” and noted that in LACBA’s primary ratings “there are civil attorneys who are rated well-qualified, there are prosecutors who are rated well-qualified, there were defense attorneys who are rated well-qualified.”

I have not received a complaint from a single judicial candidate that our process was in any way flawed or biased.
— Jerry Abeles, chair of LACBA's judicial evaluation committee

Deputy district attorney Melissa Lyons, running for Office No. 90, said there was “nothing out of the ordinary” or any “red flags” in her interview. “But it could be luck of the draw in terms of who your rater is, and what they may think is important,” Lyons said.

Lyons, who is Black, said her LACBA interviewers asked her about her experience with racism and implicit bias after noting she had written a Facebook post on those subjects.

Deputy District Attorney Melissa Hammond, who’s running for Office No. 118, said in an emailed statement that “I did not feel that my current position as prosecutor gave me any particular advantage, or that public defenders or those from administrative law backgrounds were disadvantaged."

Fernanda Maria Barreto, a deputy district attorney who successfully appealed to have her initial “qualified” rating upgraded to “well-qualified,” said she believed she was able to clinch the higher rating by telling the appeals panel more about her community-centered work — like the fact that she is a PTA board member.

“The rating is the only one where they really look at our professional background and professional experience — and of course, all of our community ties,” said Barreto, who’s running for Office No. 67.

Reviewers Were ‘Not A Diverse Bunch’

Three other candidates who are rated “qualified” or “not qualified” — notably, public defenders and a private attorney — expressed concern with their treatment during the evaluation process.

Hancock, who received the “qualified” rating, said she was instantly taken aback when she realized that a person in her LACBA evaluation meeting was a deputy district attorney who knows her opponent. “I felt like there was a conflict of interest,” she said.

“It is not unusual for the deputy district attorneys and deputy public defenders on our committee to know one or more of the public sector candidates,” LACBA’s Abeles said in an email responding to Hancock’s concern.

LACBA’s Abeles said candidates are typically provided a copy of their evaluation panel as well as a full list of committee members, and can reach out if they feel like they may have a conflict with someone on the list.

Carolyn “Jiyoung” Park, a private attorney specializing in civil rights, labor and tenant law seeking Office No 118, said of the people on camera for her Zoom evaluation interview: “It was not a diverse bunch. I mean, it was mostly white males.”

Asian woman holds door knob campaign fliers in her hands.
Carolyn Jiyoung Park is a private attorney who handles civil rights, labor and tenant cases who is running for L.A. County Superior Court judge.
(Courtesy Carolyn Jiyoung Park)

Park — no relation to Ann Park — unsuccessfully appealed her “not qualified” rating. She believes it resulted in part from her not being a prosecutor and the fact that her evaluation panel was made up of corporate lawyers and prosecutors, “who were not familiar with the type of work that people like me do.”

Park said she was asked many questions about her lack of experience trying cases before a jury, despite the fact that she estimated she has represented clients in about 60 hearings before entities like the state personnel board and some superior courts. Park said the letter informing her of her rating attributed it to “concerns about your courtroom experience.”

Abeles said a candidate does not need to have jury trial experience to receive a qualified rating.

Park also said the individual “assigned to go through my references did not ever interview my last two supervisors, who know my litigation experience the best.”

It was not a diverse bunch. I mean, it was mostly white males.
— Carolyn "Jiyoung" Park, judicial candidate

One of the supervisors, speaking anonymously to protect their privacy, said they had overlooked a LACBA email seeking information on Park, and then engaged in a round of phone tag with a LACBA evaluator. When they finally connected, it was too late to submit information because the rating had already been issued. At Park’s urging, the supervisor submitted written testimony for her appeal.

Park also said she was not made aware until she read the committee handbook that she was allowed to submit additional testimony before her appeal.

Abeles said he “confirmed that our procedures were followed for Ms. Park,” including sending an emailed questionnaire to her references and reviewing testimony before her appeal.

A Panel Without Anyone Who 'Works With The Indigent'

Anna Slotky Reitano, a public defender running for Office No. 60 who received a “qualified” rating, said of the 14 people on the panel interviewing her, six were prosecutors and the rest worked in corporate law. “Not one of them works with the indigent,” she said.

“I didn’t know anyone personally, so I thought that there were rules in place,” Slotky Reitano said. “I have since realized that I gave LACBA too much credit.”

A woman in a dark suit crosses her arms in front of herself.
Anna Slotky Reitano is a public defender running for L.A. County Superior Court judge.
(Courtesy Anna Slotky Reitano)

Abeles noted the ratings are ultimately determined by the full 44-member evaluation committee, which includes public defenders who work with the indigent.

Slotky Reitano said her interviewers irritated her by repeatedly asking questions alluding to her purportedly young age (she’s in her 40s), and why she didn’t “wait a few more years” before running.

Abeles said that “sounds like a question that is often asked of younger lawyers, regardless of gender,” although some of the candidates who are roughly Slotky Reitano's age said they were not asked similar questions.

Slotky Reitano also expressed concern over the number of questions asking why she decided to run on the Defenders of Justice slate.

“What's more amazing than women supporting women, right? They were really threatened by that,” Slotky Reitano said. “They kept bringing it up in the interview: ‘So, why did you think this was a good idea?’” She said she pointed out to the panel that “[deputy] DA’s are always running together.”

Abeles said judicial candidates generally don’t run on slates.

LACBA Leaders Say Candidates Should Have Come To Them

The inside of an L.A. courtroom. A female judge with light-toned skin sits at the bench. To her left, a large screen shows images related to the case; they are difficult to make out.
Judge Karla Kerlin (center rear) speaks to a public defender (center foreground), representing a person enrolled in ODR Housing.
(Emily Elena Dugdale

LACBA leadership maintains that if candidates had any issues with their process, they should have and could have contacted them.

Hancock said that despite her concerns with the process, she didn’t consider appealing her rating. “I thought that they were so trivial, petty, and ridiculous, I had no interest in appealing anything to them,” she said. Hancock — along with some of the other candidates — also said she was reluctant to draw attention to this issue while actively campaigning, but that my questions ultimately forced her to comment.

What's more amazing than women supporting women, right? They were really threatened by that.
— Anna Slotky Reitano, judicial candidate

“Why bring attention to the fact that your opponent is supposedly better qualified for this job than you?” Hancock said. “We can't fight this whole thing while we're also trying to get elected.”

Among the remaining candidates, Abby Baron (Office No. 60), Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes (Office No. 67), and Karen Brako (Office No. 151) did not respond to requests for comment. Leslie Gutierrez (Office No. 90) declined to comment. Patrick Hare (Office No. 151) did not provide comment before publication time.

Concerns About Bias At National Level

The concerns about bias have also arisen at the national level.

A 2014 Harvard study found the American Bar Association rated women and people of color lower than white people when assessing potential federal judges, The Obama administration clashed with the ABA over the fact that most of the group’s “not qualified” ratings were for women or people of color, according to The New York Times. And last year, President Biden became the first Democratic president to decide against using the ABA as a quasi-gatekeeper in vetting federal judges. 

The federal bench remains largely white and male.

Among California’s state judges, nearly 65% were white in 2020, and fewer than 40% were women.

Chart shows breakdown of ratings
A graph showing the breakdown of LACBA bar ratings for different types of attorneys from 2010-2020.
(Myanna Dellinger)

Myanna Dellinger, who was a law professor when she ran unsuccessfully for judge in L.A. in 2020, channeled her frustration at her “not qualified” LACBA rating into a yet-to-be-published PhD dissertation analyzing 10 years’ worth of judicial election results and LACBA ratings.

She found that only 10% of candidates with a “not qualified” rating won their election.

No public defender has ever been elected judge in L.A. County, and this election is the first in 10 years to even have public defenders on the ballot, Dellinger said.

Overall, prosecutors received higher ratings, Dellinger said. “[LACBA evaluators] basically think that a regular attorney is not qualified,” she said. “What that leads to is an extreme lack of professional diversity.”

Dellinger also analyzed the San Francisco County bar ratings.

SF's bar association rated fewer than 5% of their candidates "not qualified," while LA's rate was about 22%.

Dellinger now sits as a temporary volunteer judge in L.A. County and Riverside County. LACBA’s members “really need to look into their own implicit bias,” she said.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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