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Nine of Riverside’s 10 judicial candidates made their case for Riverside County’s vote at a forum hosted by Follow Our Courts May 4. 

Voters will decide four races to fill open judicial seats on the general ballot June 7. 

At least one prosecutor is running in each race, and their opponents are either a criminal defense attorney who has already served as a temporary judge, or an attorney already appointed to serve in a judicial capacity full time. Prosecutors are not allowed to serve as a temporary judge.

Most of the candidates agreed that funding is one of the largest issues facing Riverside’s judicial process, and most of them came from impoverished backgrounds.

The free, public event was co-sponsored by Riverside City College, which provided the venue; and McCune Wright Arevalo, who supplied staff and funding.

Read the bios, endorsements and funding for all candidates by clicking on the dots by their photos.

Office #26 Eric Isaac v. Jason Stone

Opening statements

Court Commissioner Eric Isaac has served as a court commissioner, doing some of a judge’s work, but at the appointment of the existing judges on the bench, for the last 10 years. He has seen thousands of cases, including criminal cases, family law and civil cases. He worked as an attorney in the county before his appointment to the court commissioner, and served 18 years with the Air Force, which paid for his education, he said. Isaac’s slogan is “experience matters,” and his work as a commissioner will allow him to get started right away, he said.

“It’s important to know that, if I am elected, the next day the presiding judge can give me a felony calendar of those backlogged criminal cases, and I can do that right away, because I have that experience,” Isaac said.

Deputy District Attorney Jason Stone has been a prosecutor since 2006, has experience in all Riverside County’s courtrooms, and has handled 100 felony cases a day as a prosecutor, he said. He lives with his wife and five children a couple of miles away from the house in southwest Riverside County that he grew up in, he said. His neurodivergent daughter opened his eyes to the county’s needs, and he is supportive of courtrooms that are dedicated toward mental health, he said. Stone has worked with doctors and defense attorneys to get mental health treatment for criminal defendants, he said. 

“I’m experienced in all types of serious cases, and I’ll be ready to go on day one no matter where I am sent,” Stone said.

What is the greatest obstacle to justice?

Stone and Isaac both said that Riverside County needs more funding for the justice system, to reopen closed courtrooms and to hire enough judges to handle the county’s high case load.

Isaac agreed with fellow candidate Laura Garcia’s earlier statement that there is unequal access to justice in the county when it comes to civil issues. Most people focus on criminal cases when discussing access to justice, but at least 90% of people’s exposure to the court is through traffic tickets, small claims and civil matters, Isaac said.

“It’s important when somebody is being sued for $10,000. That might sound minor when you look in the grand scheme of things, but you shouldn’t have to wait six months to go to court. You shouldn’t have to wait eight months,” Isaac said.

Stone said that every part of the justice system, from law enforcement to judges, has to use every tool at their disposal and to be open minded to resolve legal issues despite the lack of resources.

What element of your background and experience will be the most significant in making you a fair judge?

Stone was raised in a family dedicated to community service, and was raised with a moral to help others, he said. His mother was the first female president of their local Kiwanis Club, and Stone grew up delivering Christmas groups to the needy and volunteering at soup kitchens, he said. His experience with his autistic daughter causes him to recognize that not everybody has the same background or has the same experience, he said.

“When you’re raised with these morals instilled in you, that we have to help others, it becomes more about the community than about the self,” Stone said.

Isaac grew up poor in South Central Los Angeles, where his father never made more than $30,000 a year while working at the post office, and where he ate leftover hotdogs given to him by vendors at St. Andrew’s Park, he said. Isaac’s family did not have $50 for a college application, so he went into the Air Force, took night classes, and earned his undergraduate degree after working for seven years.

“All of those spheres, dealing with different people, different individuals, has made me the judicial officer I am today,” Isaac said.

What changes do we need in our judicial system?

Stone said the court system has to increase telecommuting options so that people can appear in court without disrupting their education or work.

“We can do it, we can make it easier for everyone, for everybody to attend and get the access, the justice, that they need,” Stone said.

Isaac believes that the court has a diversity issue, he said. Since Riverside Superior Court was created in 1848, there have only been two African American male judges: Richard Fields in 2000, and Otis Sterling III in 2012. Isaac said he has the experience to do the work, and isn’t only qualified because of his skin color, but that it is important for the courts to represent different skin types.

“As a commissioner, I am the only African American male face that they see down in criminal court, and I think it’s important for the community to have a reflection of more than just one type of individual,” Isaac said.

How would you serve the court beyond case management?

Isaac currently volunteers on state judicial committees, where he creates court forms, he said.

Stone believes the system needs to be innovative, and wants to increase communication across the county’s legal regions to build better practices and protocols, he said.

Closing statements

Stone touted his endorsements in his closing statements: He is endorsed by Public Defender Steve Harmon, District Attorney Michael Hestrin, Sheriff Chad Bianco and outgoing Riverside Superior Judge Burke Strunsky, who is vacating the seat that Isaac and Stone are campaigning for. Strunksy is running for district attorney.

“The fact that the judge who I am running to replace has also endorsed me, and DA Hestrin, should speak volumes about my qualifications, my integrity, and my compassion for all sides involved. I promise to give just outcomes and a meaningful opportunity to be heard for every party who appears in front of me,” Stone said.

Isaac finished by saying again that experience matters, that he is more experienced than 70% of sitting judges on the bench and that he is experienced in civil matters as well as criminal cases.

“Again, crime is important, but it’s not the only thing, and probably not what a new judge is going to hear anyway. I’ve been in family law, hundreds of cases, civil matters, hundreds of cases, thousands of cases, and I have a criminal assignment now where I’m doing the job, where I have to make decision whether or not someone goes to jail or not, or they get a break and they get to get into some program,” Isaac said.

“We have open judge positions right now that the governor hasn’t filled. We have courtrooms that are sitting empty, that could be put to use, but we don’t have the judges for them,” Stone said.

“Riverside is second in the state with a lack of judicial resources. We have 85 funded positions for judgeships, we’re supposed to, based on our population, have 115,” Isaac said.

Office #4 Amy Zois Barajas v. Natalie Lough v. Richard Swanson

Senior Gang and Homicide Prosecutor Amy Zois Barajas did not participate at the forum. Here is some information about her, from her campaign website: She has worked for the district attorney’s office since she joined the bar in 2005. Barajas has served as a line level trial prosecutor in the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit, Vehicle Homicide Unit, the Gang Unit, the Domestic Violence Unit and the Political Corruption Unit. She grew up in Riverside, and began working for her father’s Greek restaurant at the age of 6. She graduated from California State University, Fullerton, in 2001 and Southwestern University School of Law in 2004, working at the restaurant on the weekends. She states her campaign is focused on victims, public safety and accountability.

Opening statements

Senior Deputy District Attorney Natalie Lough has worked a range of assignments from child molestation to death penalties cases in her 15 years at the district attorney’s office, she said. For the past 10 years, she has been working on appellate cases, where she reviews errors made by sitting judicial officers. She met her husband, another deputy district attorney, in the prosecutor’s office, and is raising two kids with him.

“I think (my work on the appellate division) makes (me) uniquely qualified, not because it gives me some kind of legal encyclopedia, but because it makes me realize what I don’t know,” Lough said.

Criminal defense attorney Richard Swanson, who owns his law office, was raised in a middle class family in Downey, and attended a four-year college while repairing appliances for the Southern California Gas Co. to support his family, he said. His experience as a repairman caused him to encounter less fortunate people, and caused him to want to help others through being an attorney, he said. He has now been an attorney for 25 years, and has defended nine death-penalty cases. He lost his son to a drunk driver in 2011, and lost his leg to medical malpractice in 2015.

“I know what tragedy is, and I also know what it’s like to be a victim. I know that victims, and victims’ families, will be able to hear their voice in my court. And I want to make sure that I’m firm, fair and honest, based on all my past experiences,” Swanson said.

What is the greatest obstacle to justice?

Swanson believes the root cause of crime is poverty and education, he said. 

“Based on my experience in representing the individuals that I have, we need ways to educate this portion of my population and give them a chance to break the cycle and the life cycle that have been created for them. We also need some scholastic system that emphasizes the importance of education, and strengthening our school criteria,” Swanson said.

Lough believes an inadequate understanding of mental health is the root cause of inadequate justice, she said.

“Based on the last 10 years working (on mental health cases), I think that inadequate understanding, inadequate resources, and most importantly, inadequate funding of mental health programs, really is the root of inadequate justice, and the holistic perspective that I think is needed when prosecuting cases,” Lough said. 

What element of your background and experience will be the most significant in making you a fair judge?

Lough is running because the county desperately needs judges, and she realized she could turn off her advocate role that she has been carrying since she became a prosecutor when she remembered how she works with her austistic son, she said.

“I realized that he works best when I stay calm, I enforced the rules, and tried to meet him where he was, tried to show him that level of empathy even though his experience was not mine,” Lough said. 

Swanson believes his experience as a lawyer conducting family, civil, criminal and real estate property law, combined with his work as a temporary judge, will make him a good judge, he said. His personal tragedies cauise him to understand what it is to be a victim, he said.

“This will give me an opportunity to help all those other people that I see every day when I actually do (work as a temporary judge), and that’s one of the most rewarding times that I have in my life, when I’m sitting as a pro tem (judge),” Swanson said.

What changes do we need in our judicial system?

Swanson said there are too many complicated issues with the justice system already mentioned by other candidates, from poor education to poor mental health, to answer the question directly. As one example of needed changes, Swanson suggested the court draw juries from census data instead of voter and driver registration. A lot of people could be jurors, but are unnecessarily excluded from serving on juries because they are not registered to vote or drive, Swanson said.

Lough repeated her argument that a lack of understanding of and access to mental health is a problem in the justice system. Lough hoped the courts approach mental health issues and self-medication issues due to mental health issues more adequately, she said.

How would you serve the court beyond case management?

Lough believes, in addition to case management, her fair temperament and appellate research would allow her to bring due process to litigants, she said. 

Swanson said volunteer programs, including the court’s temporary judge program and mock-trial programs at schools, need to be expanded.

Closing statements

Swanson’s lived experiences, trauma, law experiences in multiple case types and experience as a temporary judge would cause a smooth transition to serving as a judge, he said.

“I can listen to the victims. I have the experience. I also have the education. I also have integrity, because I’m fair, firm and honest, and with the demeanor that I have, I’m very easy to meet,” Swanson said.

Lough’s experience as an appellate attorney, arguing before the California Supreme Court, and prosecuting trials makes her qualified for a judgeship, she said. She also grew up in cities all over the Inland Empire after her parents’ divorce, and invested in the Inland Empire community she said. She is endorsed by District Attorney Mike Hestrin, Sheriff Chad Bianco and two county supervisors she said.

“These people recognize that I will bring a unique perspective to (the judicial seat), and I ask for your vote,” Lough said.

Office #28 Kristi Kirk v. Francisco Navarro v. Christopher Whelton

Opening statements

Deputy District Attorney Kristi Kirk grew up in the small farming town of Kelseyville in Northern California. Her father worked in a geothermal plant for PG&E, and her mother was a baker. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and started in a junior college in Santa Rosa. She was hired by the district attorney’s office while in her third year at the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. Kirk always dreamed of being a district attorney, and met her husband, a probation officer, while working in the desert. She raises two children with him. In her 17-year career, Kirk has worked in misdemeanors and domestic violence, but focused on gangs and homicides.

“(My parents) taught me my work ethic. They taught me to never give up, to enjoy the failures and to keep moving forward,” Kirk said.

Deputy District Attorney Francisco Navarro is the child of immigrant parents, and faced difficulty growing up because he did not speak English at first, and had a speech impediment. He also started his post high-school education at a community college, which he paid for himself, and represented low-income clients through Legal Aid early in his career. Navarro worked multiple departments in his 15 years at the district attorney’s office, including the misdemeanor unit, the drug unit, gang unit, tribal gaming unit, grand theft unit, prison crimes unit, grand theft auto unit and domestic violence unit. He currently is in the office’s public integrity unit.

“I’ve always done my job properly, and I think that’s why I’m endorsed by the district attorney, Mike Hestrin, as well as the appointed public defender’s department. As a judge, I think it’s important to have an understanding of the impact your decisions make on the community. It’s important to have that legal and professional experience,” Navarro said.

Criminal defense attorney and sole practitioner Christopher Whelton has had the most experience out of all judicial candidates, he claimed. He has more than 30 years of experience as an attorney, defended in more than 100 trials and argued before the United States Supreme Court, juvenile court, family court, mental health court, veterans court and juvenile dependency court, he said. He has also served as a temporary judge.

“I have taken complaints. I have sentenced defendants. I have taken pleas. I have ruled on motions. I’ve already done the job, and I have already worn the robe,” Whelton said.

What is the greatest obstacle to justice?

Navarro, Whelton and Kirk agreed that Riverside County is being innovative with the resources that it has, but that the judicial system needs more funding to run programs and reopen closed courtrooms. Kirk said law enforcement also needs more funding, and needs to hire and retain more high quality officers.

What element of your background and experience will be the most significant in making you a fair judge?

Whelton’s legal experience causes him to want to help as many people as possible, he said. Instead of being able to help six people a day as a lawyer, he can help 100 people a day as a judge, and make a greater impact on the community, he said.

Kirk’s leadership in the district attorney’s Indio office during the pandemic shows her ability to display judicial temperament and calmness under pressure, she said.

Navarro knows what it’s like to be the little guy, because he didn’t speak English, was poor, and had a speech impediment, he said. 

What changes do we need in our judicial system?

Kirk, Navarro and Whelton each said the judicial system needs more resources. Kirk believes the court should focus on expanding technology, and to enforce consistency in courtrooms, to deal with the resource shortage, she said.

Navarro believes the court should focus on a prevention oriented philosophy by solving the causes of the problems instead of dealing with them after they arise, he said. If they are seeing lots of youth crimes, for example, the judicial system should be proactively talking with youth in their schools and juvenile halls, he said. Navarro has already been in problem-solving meetings between the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices and the court, he said.

Whelton said he respectfully disagrees with Navarro, and characterized Navarro’s statement as a program. The courts should be more efficient with the operations they already have instead of creating more programs, Whelton said. The courtrooms should start on time and stop continuing cases in a waste of time and resources, Whelton said. Police officers are called to appear at hearings which are continued to a later date, wasting their time and taxpayer’s dollars, Whelton said.

How would you serve the court beyond case management?

Navarro will continue being active as an individual, he said. At the district attorney’s office, he serves on the Community Action Team as a liaison between the office and individual cities; the Bureau Working Group, which comes up with solutions to make the officer more efficient and the office’s legislative committee, which reviews potential legislative changes. He also is a founding member of the Mission Bell Mentorship Program, another office program that mentors students from Mission Bell Elementary School in Jurupa Valley.

Whelton said case management alone is very easy, but that showing respect and empathy when he presides is much more important. If a judge is a fantastic listener, speaks to people with respect and calls people by Mr. or Miss and their last name, they are more likely to feel heard and achieve closure, Whelton said.

Kirk said she agreed with Whelton, but that connecting with people goes beyond the courtroom. Judges should be involved in their community and connect with people, Kirk said.

Closing statements

Whelton is the known quantity due to his 30 years experience as a lawyer in all law practices and his work as a temporary judge, he said. 

“Being a judge is not about you, being the judge is about the people who come before you, and helping them feel like the court system really does afford justice, and it really does afford them a chance to tell their story and have their day in court, and I believe I can give that to the people who come into our courts,” Whelton said.

Navarro never thought he would run for office, but has been prepared for it by his dedication to the community, he said. He has been lucky to volunteer with his wife, Valerie Navarro, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to serve as a judge in Riverside County on March 25. Together, they started the Norco mock-trial team, served on the Mission Belt Mentorship Program, and have spoken at community events, he said.

“If I’m elected, you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. Nobody’s going to work harder than me, to help make this community better. Nobody’s going to work harder than me, to make sure that the laws are enforced equally and fairly, and that people are heard and represented,” Navarro said.

Kirk has built up a reputation as an aggressive but fair and ethical prosecutor who has achieved a wide range of endorsements, she said. District Attorney Michael Hestrin, Sheriff Chad Bianco, criminal defense attorney Virginia Blumenthal and the judge who is vacating the seat have all endorsed her, she said.

“I promise to bring the work ethic that my father taught me at an early age, to always try to improve yourself, to learn from your failures, to fall down to get back up, and I will continue to hold that belief as I become your judge,” Kirk said.

Office #11 Laura Garcia v. Jay Kiel

Opening statements

Like Isaac, Court Commissioner Laura Garcia was appointed to serve in a judge-like capacity by existing Riverside Superior Court judges. She is assigned to oversee misdemeanor matters, handles hundreds of cases a day, and is familiar with the court’s backlog, she said. She was a public defender for 13 years before her appointment, and grew up poor in Coachella Valley, she said. Garcia is running to bring representation to the bench. If elected, she would be the first Hispanic woman from the Coachella Valley on the bench, Garcia said. 

“I think it’s very critical that our bench represents the community that we serve. We’re at a critical time where I think it’s important that the judiciary keeps building on and fostering the confidence and the trust that our community has in our judicial officers,” she said. 

Deputy District Attorney Jay Kiel was born and raised by a single mother in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, he said. He went to military school for eight years, then went to college on the East Coast, and took night school while working a day job to get his law degree. He spent his 15 years after law school with the district attorney’s office, where he prosecuted major narcotics and cartel cases, he said. He now serves on the gang and homicide unit. He is married, has a 12-year-old son, works with the Raincross Boxing Academy for at-risk youth and coaches a youth travel baseball team.

“One of the things that (my mother) instilled in me all my life is always to be humble, be kind, and get an education. She’s like, that’s one thing that people can never take away from you,” Kiel said.

What is the greatest obstacle to justice?

Garcia believes equal access to justice in both criminal and civil matters has not been given to all residents of Riverside County, she said. Isaac repeated this argument in his answer to the same question. This lack of equal access fosters distrust and uncertainty in the community, she said. Some people don’t have the funds to hire their own counsel, or they don’t have the funds to begin a case to address a wrong they’ve faced, she said.

“I believe that’s one of our obstacles that the courts need to focus on, ensuring that everyone who walks in is on equal footing, whether that is provided through education, through resources, through services,” Garcia said.

Kiel agreed with other candidates that funding, and backlogged cases from a lack of funding, are the biggest concerns he sees with justice. 

“It’s delaying people that have been sitting in custody their opportunity to have their due process rights, to have their jury trial, as well as it’s affecting victims of crime to have their day in court, because we can’t get these current jury trials out,” Kiel said.

What element of your background and experience will be the most significant in making you a fair judge?

Kiel learned a lot from growing up in a humble community, experiencing life and dealing with adversity, he said. He started working when was 16, and has pumped gas, roofed houses, put up aluminum siding, bartended, washed dishes and paid his own way through college, he said. He was pulled over once at night while driving his African American friend to his neighborhood, because the officer assumed there was no reason for Kiel to be in the neighborhood except to sell drugs, Kiel said.

“I’ve seen it all. I’ve lived it. I’ve experienced it, and I also know what it’s about to work hard,” Kiel said.

Garcia grew up in an inequitable, impoverished community, she said. As the mother of a child with Down Syndrome, Garcia also understands how some systems lock people out, she said.

“I understand those inequities that then play into people’s life choices. I also, as well as a public defender, understood how those inequities affected individuals and led them down long paths and bad choices,” Garcia said.

What changes do we need in our judicial system?

Kiel believes the judicial system should focus on alternatives to incarceration for low level crimes, he said. He approves of the alternative courts, like veterans court and drug court, where defendants plead guilty to a crime and then go through a court-mandated rehabilitation program. He also believes we need more community leaders showing children there is a life outside of the gang life, Kiel said.

Garcia believes the judiciary needs to represent the community it serves, to build trust and confidence in the system, she said. She agreed with Kiel that the system should look into alternative options, and agreed with Isaac that civil departments need focus and attention as well as criminal departments.

How would you serve the court beyond case management?

Garcia believes judicial officers shouldn’t focus on efficient case management at the expense of due process, she said. As a court commissioner, she handles hundreds of cases per day, and makes sure to provide a fair and just process, she said.

Kiel agreed with Francisco that individual involvement outside of the office will be important. He currently teaches law enforcement on the Fourth Amendment, marijauna laws and other issues. He has taught more than 100 trainings in Riverside County, and has taught law enforcement as far away as Colorado, he said. He also has been on committees within the district attorney’s office, he said.

Closing statements

Kiel has given back to Riverside County the past 15 years, and believes no matter what happens at the June election, Riverside County is going to get four great judges, he said. He was honored and humbled to be one of the options, he said.

“What I bring to the table is my character, my work ethic and my integrity. I’m going to carry that, I’ve carried that my whole 15 years as a prosecutor, and I’m going to bring that to the bench if I’m elected by the people of Riverside,” Kiel said.

Garcia already has been doing the job, and has the experience to do it well, she said. 

“I will help to make sure that our bench represents the community we serve and provides an equal access to justice. I will be tough, but firm. I will be compassionate, but decisive in all matters, and I think that is what’s going to benefit our community,” Garcia said.

How did the candidates do? Readers may vote here on who best answered each question, and who won a vote at our forum. All opinions are anonymous.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to add the video.

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