San Mateo County voters have a rare opportunity next month to choose their next judge in a contested race between two candidates who tout their experience in the courtroom — one as a sitting court commissioner and another as a trial attorney for two decades.
Stephanie Garratt and Ray Buenaventura are seeking the seat to be vacated by the upcoming retirement of Judge Craig Parsons. The Office Six spot is one of two San Mateo County Superior Court judge positions before voters on the June 3 ballot. The other, Office Four, was vacated by Beth Freeman, who was named to the federal bench. It is being contested between Susan L. Greenberg and Jeffrey Hayden.
In California, judges serve six-year terms and are elected in nonpartisan races. Vacancies between elections are filled by gubernatorial appointments.
Both Buenaventura and Garratt sat down individually with the Daily Journal to discuss their qualifications and why they are seeking the job. While both were quite open about their general views, judicial candidates are limited in that they cannot discuss concrete details about what they would and would not do on the bench.
Garratt, 46, spent nine years on the bench as a commissioner before court cuts eliminated three of the seven positions including the one she held. She rejoined the District Attorney’s Office handling consumer fraud and environmental protection cases but was reappointed as a commissioner and returned to the bench at the end of April.
A commissioner does essentially the same job as a judge but typically handles lower-level matters like traffic and misdemeanors. Commissioners also cannot vote with judges or preside over budgets and court assignments.
Buenaventura, 49, has been a lawyer for roughly two decades and has tried more than 90 cases. He is in private practice, works through the county’s private defender program for indigent defendants and is also a Daly City councilman. A Bay Area native, Buenaventura headed to Southern California for law school and time with the Los Angeles County public defender’s office before coming back home to establish a private practice.
That time in Los Angeles gave Buenaventura one idea for expanding the county’s court diversion programs. In some matters there, he said, city attorney hearings let offenders appear at the police station for a lecture and fine rather than a court.
Another suggestion is shoplifting court like that used in Santa Clara County. The common denominators in these alternatives are fines, counseling and community service work — all better uses of resources than court time and possible incarceration, he said.
Buenaventura believes the current court budget struggles may bring that discussion to the forefront.
Garratt is also a fan of alternatives like Veterans Court and the Pathways Mental Health Court, which she said helps people who want opportunities to break what can turn into a never-ending cycle in the justice system.
If elected, Garratt said she can hit the ground running in the job because she is essentially doing it already.
“I have talents to offer in terms of putting me anywhere,” Garratt said.
Garratt, a Pennsylvania native who moved to California after law school in Syracuse, said many of her commissioner assignments put her closer to the public than judges because many like domestic violence and family law do not involve attorneys. Her most rewarding cases are often in these arenas when she can help those before her learn how to better themselves and change behavior. One example she gave was a man in domestic violence court who was harassing the mother of his child and didn’t realize the toll it was taking on his daughter. Other cases tear at the heart, particularly when they involve children, she said.
“Judges are human. They have emotions and feel empathy. But at the end of the day it comes down to, was the law violated?” Garratt said. “It always comes back to the law and not the outcome you want to happen.”
Garratt credits her background as the foundation to make those tough decisions. After law school, she worked with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office before becoming a prosecutor in San Mateo County for five years. She spent 18 months in private practice with the private defender program before her commissioner appointment.
The budget cuts that eliminated her position also slashed 130 court staff positions and contributed to the case backlog that both candidates said is hampering access to justice. Her wish is to get the funding back but, barring that, Garratt said the judges and commissioner must support the staff left and get more personnel behind the scenes. Judges must also be able to manage high-volume calendars when 100-plus people must be given equal time in a three-hour stretch.
The cuts also leave little opportunity for new judges to get up to speed on areas with which they are unfamiliar which is why Garratt said her experience is key.
But Buenaventura disagrees that the best person for a judge spot is someone with a commissioner background.
“I think there is no training or experience you need to be a fair and impartial judge,” Buenaventura said.
His trial experience along with teaching evidence, establishing a youth peer court in Santa Clara County and handling cases ranging from family law, divorce and immigration are all components to why he’s well-rounded and best suited for the bench, he said.
He also said while having no specific preference for an assignment he’s actually looking forward to thriving with the challenge of an unfamiliar area.
Both Garratt and Buenaventura share sentencing philosophies that each case must be assessed on its own merits whether it be for alliterative supervision such as ankle monitors or sentencing. Factors include injuries, propensity of violence and the likelihood of failing to appear but all must be balanced against public safety, Garratt said.
Buenaventura also said a judge is directed by the law, such as not considering collateral consequences in sentencing, but he has an open ear and mind.
“The bottom line is I would look at everything. There is no harm in listening,” he said.
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