Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ojai Man Seeks Rare Vacant Judgeship

Jeff Bennett announces his candidacy for Ventura County Superior Court judge, flanked by U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly

By Daryl Kelley
Longtime Ojai Valley resident Jeff Bennett, a veteran chief deputy district attorney, has become a leading candidate for Ventura County Superior Court judge after receiving broad backing from the local law enforcement community.
Bennett, 51, a lifelong county resident, announced at a press conference on Friday that he’d filed to fill the post of Judge Bruce Clark, a 30-year jurist who’d decided to retire, leaving to voters a rare decision on who should fill an open judgeship.
Jurists often retire during their six-year terms, and replacements are usually filled by the governor.
Bennett will be challenged by 54-year-old Roberto Orellana of Santa Paula, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and a veteran civil lawyer in the Ventura County Counsel’s Office.
Several other candidates were expected to file, but election officials said they failed to pull applications by the Monday deadline after initial calls of inquiry. Until May 20, others could still file as write-in candidates in the June 3 election if they gather at least 20 nominating signatures, election officials said.
The 29-seat Ventura County Superior Court is now divided evenly between judges who are former prosecutors and those whose experience is primarily in civil courts or as defense lawyers, officials said.
And the contest between Bennett and Orellana pits a veteran prosecutor against an experienced civil lawyer.
Bennett had hoped to scare off potential challengers by announcing his candidacy Friday morning — just one work day after Clark said he would not seek re-election. Indeed, dozens of law enforcement and local officials backed him at a press conference.
“It’s my way of getting my name out there early to let people know I’m serious,” he said.
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) was one of those who cited Bennett’s law enforcement background: “This is my honor,” he said to the candidate. “We need justices like you.”
District Attorney Greg Totten and former District Attorney Mike Bradbury also spoke on Bennett’s behalf. He received endorsements from Sheriff Bob Brooks and County Fire Chief Bob Roper, from the police chiefs of Ventura and Port Hueneme, and from the mayors of Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Santa Paula and Moorpark.
Bennett is prepared to spend $150,000 or more to win the seat if necessary, backing himself with a $20,000 nest egg to start, said his campaign manager.
In comments, Bennett staked out his position as law enforcement’s candidate, citing 29 years of experience as a police officer, district attorney’s chief investigator and the last 13 as a chief deputy district attorney.
He said he was running “so I may continue a lifetime of service ... especially to our residents who have been the victims of violent crime. ... Public safety is my first priority.”
But if Bennett’s quick announcement was intended to deter opponents, Orellana said he hardly noticed.
He said he’d been encouraged by numerous local residents to join the race. A list of endorsements and an estimate of his own potential expenditures will be forthcoming, he said.
“I’ll spend whatever it takes,” Orellana said. “A lot of people have come forward to ask me to run. But I didn’t know Bruce Clark wasn’t running until Thursday. Apparently Mr. Bennett did. ”
Citing 18 years in the County Counsel’s Office, Orellana said he has his own experience as a prosecutor. His first five years as a county lawyer, he said, were dedicated to civil and criminal prosecution of violators of Ventura County’s property codes.
“So I’ve worked as a special deputy district attorney,” he said Monday in an interview after filing.
But Orellana said he is running on the breadth of his experience — as a special prosecutor and as the county’s lawyer representing its harbors, Civil Service Commission and its Mobile Home Rent Committee, among other duties.
“I feel the time is right to get a representative with my diverse background on the court,” he said. The public needs someone with diverse experience, general governmental experience.”
In addition, while Ventura County is more than one-third Latino, the Superior Court has only two Latino judges, and one is retiring March 1.
Orellana said “The fact that I’m Hispanic is secondary. But we need to have a bench that is representative of the community. So they feel they’re getting a fair shake.”
Indeed, the candidates’ ability to be fair was a principal part of opening comments.
Totten and Bradbury cited that characteristic in backing Bennett.
“He will be a great judge,” Totten said.
“He is a person of fairness ... and that is a hallmark of any good judge,” Bradbury said.
Both candidates also cited personal backgrounds that show an up-by-the-bootstraps diligence.
Bennett, the son of an elementary school teacher and a tile contractor, was Ventura County’s Athlete of the Year as a high school senior, excelling in football track and wrestling. He starred as a defensive back in football in college, then served as a peace officer in Sacramento, then Santa Barbara, while attending Ventura College of Law at night.
Bradbury hired him in 1989 and was so impressed by his hard work he named him Prosecutor of the Year in 1990. Bennett soon directed the office’s major fraud unit and was named one of Bradbury’s top five deputies in 1995.
A computer whiz, Bennett later oversaw a four-lawyer team that prosecuted local Hells Angels for drug distribution in the longest and most complicated case in county history. The case resulted in numerous convictions, but sentences were cut short when a Santa Barbara judge ruled the grand jury that indicted the suspects was not composed of a fair cross-section of the community.
Bennett is married to wife Dee, a physical education teacher at Matilija Junior High, and has two daughters. He is also an avid amateur astronomer and has coached and refereed local sports teams.
Orellana also boasts an impressive history of achievement despite a modest family background in West Los Angeles.
The son of a Salvadoran immigrant who came to the U.S. decades ago, Orellana was one of four siblings who graduated from college as their father toiled in variety of jobs and his homemaker mother raised the family.
Orellana moved to Santa Paula in 1978 to attend Thomas Aquinas College, graduating four years later with a liberal arts degree in the university’s renowned classics curriculum. He then graduated with honors from Notre Dame Law School and clerked with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
After three years of private practice in civil law, he became a county lawyer here, partly because he’d met and married his wife, the former Mary Kern, while she was also a student at Thomas Aquinas.
Her father, Joseph Kern, was the longtime city attorney in Fillmore.
The couple have eight children, ranging from pre-school to college age, with the eldest a student in law school.
Whoever wins the June election will become the first elected judge in Ventura County since former prosecutor Kevin McGee was selected by voters in 1998. Before that, two other former prosecutors won election — Don Coleman in 1996 and Colleen Toy White in 1994.
White, now the presiding judge, said that the perception that the court is dominated by former prosecutors is a misconception, since the bench is now evenly split. And that could change even more as four vacant positions are filled this year, and Clark is replaced.
“And because several more of our judges are eligible for retirement, in five years this could be a completely new bench,” she said.
A Superior Court judge is paid $178,789 annually.
If Bennett is elected, he would be the third Superior Court Judge from the Ojai Valley, following Fred Bysshe and John Dobroth. Judge Arturo Gutierrez, who is retiring next month, also lives in this area., White said.


Anonymous said...

"flanked by U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly" (Gag-me!) Plus, endorsement from Bradbury (son who burned the valley with illegal fireworks and did not get prosecuted!)--Enough said!

Lenny Roberts said...

If you are going to post information and responses on this or any other blog, please get your facts straight. It was not Bradbury's son who started the fire. Look it up using the OVN Archive feature. I know. I reported on the court proceedings.