A Superior Court judge being challenged in his reelection bid by a veteran prosecutor says voters should consider his "breadth of experience" before casting their ballots, but his opponent argues the county has been poorly served by the incumbent.
On June 5, Riverside County voters will decide whether to elect Judge Craig Riemer to a second six-year term, or give Deputy District Attorney John Henry a shot at the job.
With the county Deputy District Attorneys' Association throwing its money and weight behind Henry, the primary contest has become a race to watch.
"This is about the ability of someone ... being able to buy a seat on the bench," Riemer told City News Service. "The union represents all deputy DAs, and it has put up $50,000 in this race. No one spends that amount of money simply out of concern for good government. It's disturbing to think ... they can decide who is going to fill judicial slots."
But according to Henry, the race has nothing to do with campaign contributions and everything to do with having a judge who is "faithful to the law" -- a standard that the prosecutor does not believe Riemer has met.
"One judge who doesn't understand the law or doesn't comprehend the significance of the cases before him is one too many," Henry told CNS. "There are problems that need to be rectified, and can be in this election."
The 37-year-old father of two, who is married to a county prosecutor, has been a deputy district attorney since 2000, handling mainly homicide cases. He worked for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office until 2003, when he was hired away by then-Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask.
Henry now manages the D.A.'s Sexual Assault Child Abuse unit.
The same year Henry moved to Riverside, Riemer was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Gray Davis. Prior to his judgeship, Riemer was a research attorney for the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Riverside.
The 56-year-old jurist, who is married with a son, has lived in the county since 1980 and worked in private practice before being hired onto the appellate court staff.
"I've been doing this for 32 years," Riemer told CNS. "Breadth of experience is important, though not as much as devotion to the rule of law. I believe a commitment to the community and a commitment to this process are vital to the position."
The judge is currently assigned to the downtown Riverside Historic Courthouse, hearing mostly civil cases, which he acknowledges preferring. He blamed the RCDDA for putting him in a position of having to fend off a challenge.
"That union is a powerhouse," Riemer told CNS. "Most judicial campaigns cost 40 to 60 percent of what they're spending."
The judge said he suspected a 2009 flap between him and RCDDA President Mike Hestrin over the union's efforts to secure a larger contract than what the county said it could afford had led to support for a Henry candidacy.
Hestrin told CNS that Riemer's accusation is "ridiculous and insulting."
"Judge Riemer is the worst judge on the bench. It's that simple," the veteran prosecutor said. "Everybody has stories about being 'Riemered.' We finally decided that something ought to be done about it."
He said the union leadership approached Henry about being a candidate more than a year ago.
Henry told CNS that he hesitated to run, but made the decision after considering a litany of complaints about Riemer from fellow prosecutors.
"There were a lot of things I found disturbing, not just as a prosecutor, but as a citizen. Judges are in positions of power and have a responsibility to be faithful to the law. There are instances in which this judge has not been," Henry said.
To illustrate his point, he referred to a lengthy critique of Riemer by the RCDDA, which has created a web portal called "The Case Against Judge Riemer," listing an array of purported acts of judicial imprudence.
One of the highlighted cases concerns a convicted thief, John Lake, who had four felony strikes on his record from a series of burglaries in 1991. He was convicted 15 years later of embezzlement for stealing money from his mother, and when he came before Riemer for sentencing in May 2007, a prosecutor sought the maximum punishment -- 25 years to life in prison -- based on Lake's rap sheet.
Riemer imposed a four-year term. After receiving jail time credit, Lake was freed without serving another day behind bars.
According to the RCDAA, the defendant stole a car weeks later, drove to Anaheim and burglarized several rooms at a hotel outside Disneyland. An Orange County Superior Court judge sentenced him in December 2010 to 350 years in prison.
Riemer told CNS the 1991 burglaries were "nonviolent" and Lake had not been convicted of any crimes between then and when the embezzlement occurred, which the judge characterized as mitigating factors in a three-strikes case.
"The union says I didn't follow the law. Did they appeal? No. Did they try to prevent future three-strikes cases from being tried in my courtroom? No," Riemer said. "If I'm such a terrible judge, why not?"
The RCDDA also highlighted the case of Lumard Lynn Wilson, who was accused of assaulting a peace officer and other felonies. In May 2010, Wilson's jury trial was assigned to Riemer's courtroom.
The same day closing statements were slated to begin, the judge declared a mistrial when it appeared the attorneys would not finish in time for him to begin a vacation to Washington, D.C., where his son was graduating from college.
The prosecutor in the case argued that time, money and court resources were going to waste and requested an opportunity to try to get through closing arguments by 5 p.m., after which another jurist could monitor jury deliberations, according to court transcripts. Riemer refused.
He told CNS that the prosecutor's "lack of preparation" on the case and the defense attorney's "disruptive tactics" had caused preventable delays, despite his repeated warnings that he was on a strict timetable.
"It is not a violation of ethical duties for a judge to declare a mistrial to allow for a preplanned vacation where both parties were aware of the time constraints ... and had exceeded (those) constraints," the judge said.
Henry, who has litigated two cases in Riemer's courtroom, said criticism of his opponent is justified.
"You can't engage in conduct that is results-oriented from the bench," he said. "There's a stark comparison to be made here between me and the incumbent in this election. My plank? Making sure we have a judge who understands the importance of public safety and holding criminals accountable for their actions."
He said his dozen years as a prosecutor have prepared him to be a fair and impartial administrator of justice.
Riemer described Henry's experience as lacking and questioned whether he would be up to the challenge of managing nearly 2,000 civil cases -- the number on the judge's docket this year.
"When you look at my young opponent's record of service -- there's just nothing there," Riemer said.
The judge said he has not hesitated to punish "thousands" of criminals and believes the community would continue to benefit from his "training, experience and judgment."
In addition to Henry's bid to unseat Riemer, two other judges are facing challengers this year. Judge Gary B. Tranbarger is facing Richard T. Nixon, and Judge James Cox is facing Michael J. Kennedy.