Temperance, work ethic, knowledge: three of San Bernardino’s four judicial candidates made their argument for your vote at an open forum hosted by Follow Our Courts April 27.
The free, public event was co-sponsored by the University of Redlands, who provided the venue; the League of Women Voters, who provided promotion; and McCune Wright Arevalo, who supplied staff and funding.
Voters will choose June 7 between criminal defense attorney James McGee and Supervising Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriguez to join the bench of San Bernardino Superior Court. Voters will also choose between Deputy District Attorney David Tulcan and Public Defender Mario Martinez Jr, who did not participate in the forum.
Follow Our Courts Executive Editor Toni Momberger moderated the forum, which included seven questions, asked between opening and closing statements.
Read the bios, endorsements and funding for all candidates by clicking on the dots by their photos.
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.
McGee holds well-rounded experience as a criminal defense attorney, former district attorney, owner of his own law firm and litigator in multiple courts, he argued in his opening statements.
“The most important thing about my experience is that I understand how both sides work. I understand what everybody’s trying to do,” McGee said.
Rodriguez centered her 17 years as a prosecutor around crime victims, led the county’s human trafficking unit, is a certified expert on human trafficking and worked to decriminlize young girls who were victims of trafficking, she said.
“I think I have a lot of experience to bring to the table, and hope to share that with you this evening,” she said.
Tulcan was raised in Crestline, the son of Soviet refugees. He has a wide range of experience including civil litigation in private firms, prosecuting rapes and murders in the district attorney’s office, and now litigating civil consumer and environmental protection cases in the district attorney’s office, he said.
“Basically, any type of crime that you can imagine out there I’ve had my hands in one form or another as a prosecutor, and fought diligently, ethically, for the rights of victims and for public safety,” Tulcan said.
Momberger asked how each candidate would make sure they would handle their courtrooms in light of the backlog San Bernardino Superior Court faces.
Each candidate said that being on time to begin proceedings, reading up on their cases outside of court proceedings, and working after court is finished are important parts of efficiently running their courtrooms.
Tulcan and McGee both said that managing expectations and following through with the directions provided to the litigants is important.
Rodriguez said it is important for judges to share each other’s burdens.
“If I have an opportunity throughout my day to be able to take a motion from another judge or hear another case, or hear a preliminary hearing to lighten another judge’s load because they’ve got a trial or something that they’ve got to do, I think that’s an important concept,” Rodriguez said.
Tulcan said that deciding certain cases do not actually need to be taken under submission helps the backlog.
“Once you’ve heard the facts, get to making a decision, not every case needs to be taken under submission,” Tulcan said.
McGee said that conducting more pre-trial settlement conferences is important.
“You can start working to try and clear some of those (cases) out by having meaningful conversations and try to reach middle ground between the parties,” McGee said.
Obstacles to justice
Momberger asked each candidate what they believe the biggest obstacles to justice are in San Bernardino County.
Tulcan argued the biggest obstacle is apathy and a general misunderstanding of how the judicial process works, which he has helped and wants to continue helping by publicly informing county residents.
“As public officials and candidates, I think it is incumbent upon us to go into the community, to be a part of the community, at forums like this, where we can actually talk to and have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in our community,” Tulcan said.
McGee said “justice delayed is justice denied.” He argued that San Bernardino County needs more money from the state to fund 40 more judges and to construct new buildings to house the judges in order to handle the county’s case load. The county should also invest more in remote technology to allow people who live remotely in the county to gain access to the courts without driving for hours.
Attorneys also need to talk to each other more outside of the courtroom, and the court should require those conversations like other courts do, McGee said.
Rodriguez said San Bernardino’s law enforcement departments need more funding to cut down on first responder times and to prosecute more crimes. The county’s gang units and human trafficking units have been cut, and a negative portrayal of law enforcement by the media causes less applicants to apply to law enforcement academies, Rodriguez said.
“We continue to expect our police agencies to do more, but with less resources,” Rodriguez said.
Momberger asked what elements of each candidate’s background and experience will make them a fair judge.
McGee has done every training in the book for both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, and his experience on both sides of criminal litigation allows him to understand what everyone is attempting to do, he said. His experience as a mediator and a judge pro tem further his ability as an impartial judge, he said.
“I bring something that’s unique. The number of attorneys that can say they’ve done special circumstance crimes on both sides of the table, I can count on my hands in the state,” McGee said.
Rodriguez’s experience following the district attorney’s ethical standards, managing the district attorney’s office, deciding which cases to prosecute as a supervising district attorney, settling disputes among her three sons and balancing her career with her family shows her ability to balance, she said.
“In reviewing a case, I have to look at it from several different perspectives. I have to look at it to see if there’s a defense that a defense attorney might have. I have to look at it to see if the police officers have done their job adequately and haven’t violated any rights. I have to look at it from a judge’s perspective to see are there things that might not be allowed into evidence because of particular issues,” Rodriguez said.
Tulcan has a broad base of professional experience from civil litigation and civil defense to criminal prosecution, but also has a judicial temperament of calmness, respectability and humility that judges require, he said. He’s also able to conduct himself in a forum with no sleep due to raising a 3-month-old and two other children, he joked.
“Judicial temperament is absolutely important to getting things done in a courtroom,” Tulcan said. “I have a calm and respectful demeanor. I’m not quick to anger or loud outbursts. I believe humility is a virtue.”
Momberger asked each candidate how they think the judicial system should change.
Rodriguez believes the county’s judicial vacancies need to be filled, and that the court should use more technology, she said. She recalled the closing of multiple operations in courtrooms throughout the county as a result of the 2008 crash as a reason for the court’s case backlog.
Tulcan does not believe the judicial system needs new laws or big changes, he said. The system needs the right people to enforce the laws and use the tools that are already in place, he said.
McGee believes San Bernardino Superior Court needs to allow digital filings for criminal documents, allow litigants to agree to continue their hearings to a later date by paper instead of requiring both sides to appear in court first and allow remote appearances for people who don’t have adequate transportation or live far away from a courthouse, he said.
Civil cases, federal court and appellate court already allow litigants to file documents from their own desktops, but San Bernardino requires litigants to show up in line to have court staff manually scan criminal documents, McGee said. Riverside court already allows ligitants to continue their hearing by paper instead of showing up for a hearing, he said.
Serving beyond judging
Momberger asked each candidate how they would serve the court beyond case management.
Tulcan wants to educate both community members and law enforcement about the law and the courts, he said. He wants to educate either through formal trainings or by showing up at club meetings, he said.
McGee can bring his frugal private business mentality to court operations, and work on internal committees, he said. He would like to work on the criminal operations committee or technology committee, he said.
Rodriguez wants to work on the specialty courts, where defendants plead guilty and are put through a support program, she said. The Veterans Court, she provided as an example, is for veterans who committed crimes due to an issue they sustained through their service. Rodriguez said Girl’s Court, for girls who have been victims or have been associated with human trafficking, is near and dear to her heart.
“I would like the opportunity to be able to serve people in the community who have needs that are different than those just on the regular calendar management system,” Rodriguez said.
Momberger asked each candidate what makes a good judge, and how they embody those characteristics.
McGee believes a judge must have a good base knowledge of the law, temperance, a sense of humor and the ability to make difficult decisions, McGee said.
“In the years doing this, I had to make a lot of difficult decisions. As a prosecutor, I always say you’re not a prosecutor until you turn down a murder investigation. Instead of just rubber stamping what they bring you, say, ‘No, the law says you don’t have it,’” McGee said.
Rodriguez believes being open-minded, listening and being impartial and objective are the most important characteristics, she said.
Oftentimes, people say things, but you aren’t really listening to them, and you have to be able to read between the lines and actually hear what they’re telling you,” Rodriguez said.
Tulcan believes competence, with judicial temperament and effective decision-making are important.
“(The courtroom) is the only place that the parties can come to get resolution, to get justice. As a result of that, this may be their only chance for them to be heard. So it’s important for the judge that’s sitting on the bench to allow that process to happen, not to interject themselves for their own personality,” Tulcan said.
Rodriguez, Tulcan and McGee each volunteer to coach high school mock trial teams.
Rodriguez also works with the Fontana Leadership Academy, Project Fighting Chance and Colton At Risk Teens.
Tulcan also is active in his church, and volunteers with his family at an animal shelter.
McGee spent five years on the board of directors for the court appointed special advocate program for foster care CASA San Bernardino, helped design and has taught at the Fontana Leadership Intervention Program, volunteered at Colton at Risk Teens, works with the San Bernardino Legal Aid Society and the Inland Empire Latino Lawyers Association and is a member of the San Bernardino and Riverside bar associations.
“My commitment to the Constitution of the United States and California, and the people of California, public safety, the rights of victims, and victims of crime is evident in my experience, in my work and my professional history,” Tulcan said in his closing statement.
“I always get along with everybody. I try to be courteous to people when I can, to try and understand these individual’s concerns, and to honor them and treat them how I want to be treated,” McGee said.
“If elected, I promise you that I will do the best job that I can do. I’ve made a commitment during my lifetime to public service, and I have done that inside and outside my office, and my commitment to public service, if elected, would allow me to reach a greater number of people,” Rodriguez said.