A few pointed barbs were exchanged Thursday at the Madonna Inn as four candidates seeking election to two open San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge seats made their cases to the local legal community in a short, three-question forum.
It was a rare event for San Luis Obispo County, where all current sitting judges have been appointed by the Governor's Office.
But this year, one judicial appointee is defending his seat against a local prosecutor, and a court commissioner and a defense attorney are vying for the bench of retiring Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera.
Democrat Judge Hernaldo Baltodano — a former civil attorney appointed to the bench by the Governor's Office this past November — is defending his short-lived judgeship from longtime Deputy District Attorney and former head of the prosecutors' union Andy Cadena, who is registered no party preference.
Judicial offices are considered non-partisan.
The forum marks the first time in about 15 years where residents had an opportunity to hear from two or more candidates for judge. The last contested election between two judge candidates was when now-retired Judge John Trice successfully ran against Nipomo attorney Jacqueline Frederick in 2002.
The forum, hosted by the SLO County Bar Association, lasted less than 40 minutes. Because judges and judicial candidates are limited by the California Code of Judicial Ethics in the political activities they can participate in, questions asked of the candidates avoided politics, specific policy questions and details about cases they've worked on.
Questions instead focused on the candidates' different careers and experience. Candidates in both races touted their experience over their opponents' as more fitting for that of a well-rounded judge.
In his opening statement describing his experience, Covello cited his early years in criminal defense work before he became a prosecutor in SLO County. He noted his prosecution of two of the county's most notorious murder cases, that of convicted killer Rex Krebs and the killers of Santa Maria teenager Dystiny Myers. Covello also cited his help in creating a drug treatment court in 1997 as an example of his ability to collaborate with other courthouse stakeholders.
"If you're dealing with a $10 to $12 million budget, the judges as you know have to make decisions for the court, and they do so collaboratively," Covello said.
He said that as a commissioner, presiding over traffic and small claims cases, he's been praised for his "judicial demeanor," which he called an essential quality for a judge.
"Working with self-represented litigants, you get tested every day," Covello said.
That was a thinly veiled dig at Funke-Bilu, who's known in legal circles as the one of the most aggressive defense attorneys in the county.
Funke-Bilu also touted his "greater breadth of experience," which includes almost 40 years of criminal defense experience, as well as civil litigation such as medical malpractice and real estate cases and arguing cases in appellate court and before the State Supreme Court. Funke-Bilu also served for eight years on the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors.
"That kind of breadth, you don't see on the bench," Funke-Bilu said. "I think I would help balance the court and make the court a much better court."
In his rebuttal, Covello countered that he formerly worked as a public defender, whereas Funke-Bilu never worked as a prosecutor, and said that he had successfully prosecuted many criminal cases against clients of Funke-Bilu.
"I don't think my experience was lacking in those cases, given the outcome," Covello said. "I think Ilan's a great lawyer, but I think being a great lawyer is not the same thing as being a great judicial officer."
In his opening, Baltodano talked about his career as a "hard-charging civil litigator," practicing employment law in state and federal court, and discussed the vetting process he underwent for his judicial appointment. Though he has experience in civil law, Baltodano has been presiding over the court's misdemeanor calendar since taking the bench in December.
"I was potentially coming into a situation that was fresh and unknown to me," Baltodano said. "Judges asked me, 'Wouldn't you be more comfortable in a civil assignment?' But ... my life has been about embracing challenges."
Cadena said he's been preparing for a role as judge for 25 years, starting as a public defender in Kern County and serving for about 18 years as a SLO County prosecutor, trying more than 70 felony trials, including sensitive cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence.
"That type of skill set is important to have," Cadena said. "How can you run a successful courtroom if you've never had a trial? If you've never dealt with a 4-year-old child in your courtroom?"
Cadena also cited his work in the community, such as organizing the court's mock trials and in the Sheriff's Academy.
Asked whether the Superior Court is "as transparent as it should be," Funke-Bilu answered no.
"I remember when lawyers were treated with comity," he said. "There has to be more comity between the officers of the court — lawyers — and judges. I think that has hurt us in terms of resolving cases, in terms of running a smooth operation."
While Covello said he agreed that government can always benefit from more transparency, he said the court has managed its budget well.
"Comity and transparency are sort of two different things. I think the court in general is as transparent as it can be," Covello said. "Comity comes from people treating people well. That means treating everybody well, with respect and dignity on a regular basis."
Local endorsements also came up in Covello and Funke-Bilu's closing statements.
Covello lists endorsements of 12 of the 13 sitting Superior Court judges (Judge Matt Guerrero has remained neutral in the race) on his campaign's website. Twice during the event, Covello also claimed that "the judges reached out" to him and encouraged him to run for LaBarbera's seat.
"That's not a surprise given the fact that he's on the team; he was picked by the judges (as commissioner). It's not a surprise that employers would back someone they hired," Funke-Bilu said.
Saying that he's "a little hurt" the majority of judges — some of whom sat in the audience — didn't stay neutral in the race, he said he believes he works well with everyone in the courthouse.
"You should not leave the serious business of an election to you; let the people decide," Funke-Bilu said to the judges.
The candidates will meet for another forum April 25 in the County Board of Supervisors chambers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Cadena's political party.