It’s considered a form of career suicide for an attorney to run for superior court against an entrenched incumbent, however Valley Center resident Vicki Rothman thinks several factors make it important for Judge Herbert Exarhos to have an opponent, and for the residents of the county to have a choice.
The Superior Court race is county-wide. It includes the Vista courthouse, Valley Center and Escondido, Chula Vista, El Cajon and the main courthouse in Union Street. There are 47 judges up for reelection, but the public only gets to vote in two of the “races” because in the others the incumbents were unchallenged and automatically reelected.
Rothman says, “Part of the reason I’m running is that the Judicial Council [The Judicial Council of California is the rule-making arm of the California court system] and the Governor’s Committee on Judicial Appointees tries to circumvent open seats by coming in and appointing the judge, who is usually unopposed. Ballotpedia says Governor Brown has appointed twenty-five judges in San Diego County alone. Some who are up in June were appointed by Brown and some were appointed by Schwarzenegger and Davis.” The judge Rothman is running against, Exarhos, joined the Superior Court in 1987 after he was appointed by Deukmejian. She adds, “He’s been on the bench a long time.” He is 75.
Rothman says she is running partially to counter the unwritten rule that you shouldn’t run against a sitting judge. “The public ends up with judges who are unaccountable in their judicial decisions because they are not challenged, and they never have to face the voters,” she says.
She chose Exarhos, “not because I know him personally but because he is indicative of what’s wrong when we don’t challenge seated judges and don’t have term limits.” She notes that in 2016 the County District Attorney began issuing multiple preemptory challenges that prevented the judge from hearing anything but misdemeanor cases. An article in the U-T chronicles this issue: www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-exarhos-papered-2016aug19-story.html
“I believe if he had that many conflicts he should have moved to a different department, because most judges rotate from civil to family to probate to traffic to criminal,” says Rothman. “He didn’t move from the criminal bench in El Cajon. If he was having problems, it would have been better for the public to go to a different department instead of backlogging cases from challenges.”
She adds, “I also think that after 37 years on the bench he hasn’t litigated a case or represented a client. He’s too far removed to see the frustration that the people are encountering in the courtrooms.”
Rothman points to The Robing Room (www.therobingroom.com/california/) which she describes as “a Yelp for Judges.” “He only had a couple of reviews and they were bad.”
Speaking in general, Rothman says many complaints from litigants and attorney say the same thing. “Judges are appointed in particular departments who have no experience in that department. What happens is that when judges are appointed there is no common sense for where they are placed. I propose placing judges in courtrooms where they have experience in that kind of law.”
The judicial calendars are very overloaded, says Rothman. “I’m looking at Exarhos’s calendar, and I only see him doing one arraignment at 8 a.m. and you don’t know what he’s doing the rest of the day. I think we need a little more accountability. Judges get to make their own calendars and I think that’s a problem.”
Rothman wants to address an issue that troubles her, which is that in civil and family court there are no court reporters. Since September 2016 the Superior Court of San Diego has not had court reporters in in civil, family, or probate court. “At least fifty percent in family court are self-represented,” says Rothman. “They come in without lawyers, go to a hearing, and maybe there is a brand-new judge who doesn’t know the law and makes an erroneous ruling on domestic violence and one of the parties wants to file an appeal. Without a court reporter there’s no transcript and no way to see if there is a judicial error.”
Judges should be required to tell people they are entitled to have a reporter, but they must pay for them. “I think there should be some committees within the judicial branch in San Diego comprised of people who have been litigating who understand the problems,” says Rothman.
“There is a lot of disrespect from the bench to the people and lawyers, and some judges can get away with certain things because they are automatically reelected and have no accountability. It’s pretty expensive to run a race, but in a judicial race its $12,000 just to file a ballot statement. It’s stacked against challengers,” she says.
So, is Rothman crazy to fight those odds? “I’m really not crazy,” she says. “People have done it before and when they do it the needle moves, and judges are put on notice. Many judges made contributions to Exarhos’s campaign. It’s very clear who is giving money. They endorsed him. Those are the reasons I’m running and Judge Exarhos needs to move on. At forums he continues to talk about how he’s on the bench 40 years and he doesn’t grasp there is a disconnect between that and the people.”
Vicki Rothman went to law school in her late 30s after a business background in sales and marketing. She attended a distance learning law school: William Howard Taft. She passed the bar in 2005 and in 2008, when the Great Recession arrived, she started focusing on family law, because of the explosion of divorces and bankruptcies.
In 2015 she passed the state bar’s family law certified specialist exam. “For the last decade I’ve done a lot of high conflict custody marriage dissolution and domestic violence. A lot of judges don’t understand the Domestic Violence Protection Act. They make dangerous rulings because they don’t understand it. It would make sense to appoint a judge to a court you don’t have to learn.”
She adds, “As public servants, we need to recognize that the bench belongs to the people. Judges don’t own it. It’s not their bench. It’s really not. You are in a public service. It’s an honor to serve the people and we keep our judges in check by running against incumbents. They need a reality check on who they work for.”
Rothman believes the bench is not an alternative to the legislature: “I believe in following the precedents that are set. I don’t believe in making law from the bench. I believe in judicial restraint.”
Rothman has lived in Valley Center since 2008. Her husband, David, works at Welk Resort. Her daughter, Alexandra, 21, graduated from Palomar College with an AA in Journalism and is currently a senior at the University of Miami.
If you want to meet Vicki Rothman, you will have your chance at Sunday’s Grand Avenue Festival, the Western Days Parade May 26 in Valley Center, the Santee Street Fair May 26 and the Vista Strawberry Festival May 27.
The election is June 5. Find out more by visiting electvickirothman.com.