3 candidates stress their varied courtroom experience
The Superior Court judges and district attorneys of this nation are on the front lines of law and order, exacting justice for their communities.
During a Tuesday forum held by the Del Norte Tea Party Patriots, five candidates put their experience and vision on display. They included judicial hopefuls Dohn Henion, Darren McElfresh and Chris Doehle, and DA candidates Dale Trigg and Bob Drossel.
Today, let’s meet the candidates for judge:
Incumbent Judge Chris Doehle (pronounced “daily”) exhibited the calmest demeanor among the candidates, perhaps showing traits inherited since being appointed in December 2012 to finish the term of Judge Robert Weir.
Doehle spent half of her opening remarks explaining the intricacies of the exhaustive yearlong state appointment process, which she said proves she belongs to be there.
“I believe I was the right person for the job. I have the qualities of a judge that are important in terms of fairness, listening, temperament, intelligence, and being a hard-working person,” Doehle said, adding that she has the endorsements of fellow Del Norte Superior Court Judge William Follett and Humboldt County judges. “And I’m in the position, so there are no question marks about doing the position.”
Before being appointed to be Del Norte’s first female Superior Court judge by Gov. Jerry Brown, Doehle had served as a family law facilitator since 1997. As a judge, she has handled civil and misdemeanor cases through trials, and felony cases through preliminary hearings.
Challenger Darren McElfresh set himself apart, spatially if not ideologically, with his opening remarks by jumping up from the table where candidates were seated and strolling to the front of the room with the wireless microphone, perhaps a reminder of the many hours of trial experience that McElfresh holds up as one of his most outstanding qualities.
“We deserve someone who has experience prior to taking the bench,” McElfresh said, pointing to his 20 years as an attorney in Del Norte. “We deserve someone who has practiced trial law, who has literally done hundreds of cases before coming here.”
He said he has handled hundreds of criminal trials from murder to DUIs, complicated six-week civil cases with dozens of witnesses and thousands of documents, and custody and divorce cases, all leading to experience that will mean “no longer will there be sweetheart deals for repeat offenders” and “no more tricks by slick lawyers” costing taxpayers money in lengthy delays “that cause victims to come back to court again and again.”
With 80 percent of Del Norte’s caseload being in criminal law, McElfresh said his experience makes him right for the job.
McElfresh also highlighted his endorsements from the Crescent City Police Officers Association and the Del Norte Sheriff’s Employee Association and his claim as the only candidate with prior experience as deputy district attorney.
Challenger Dohn Henion, who has practiced law for more than 30 years, said he had not just depth but breadth of experience in law fields. He has been a prosecutor for the Department of the Interior, Crescent City’s attorney, Crescent City Harbor District’s attorney, the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority’s attorney, and legal advisor to the police, sheriff, probation department and the district attorney.
Henion noted high-profile cases that he has handled, including successfully arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that federal law trumps state law in the case of the commercial sale of salmon from the Klamath River by Yurok Indians and several cases defending the interests of the city of Crescent City.
Before becoming a prosecutor primarily working with municipalities, Henion was defense attorney dealing with “murder, murder by torture, rape, even juvenile delinquency murder, child molestation, burglary, manufacturing methamphetamine — you name it, I got experience in it,” Henion said. “But I personally didn’t feel that doing that was something that was productive with my time and energies so I switched to the other side and became a prosecutor.”
Dealing with offenders
The candidates might have best defined themselves when answering, “As a judge what is your personal responsibility in dealing with habitual offenders?”
McElfresh told his story of being a 19-year-old restaurant night manager that was held up at gunpoint by a robber demanding that he open the safe or be executed on his knees.
McElfresh said he testified at the hearing of the robber, who took a plea deal.
“Within one month of being released he did it again. To this day I still remember the cold steel barrel on the back of my head,” McElfresh said. “Repeat offenders, habitual offenders do not belong on our streets.“
Henion said that he would address the “pervasive community opinion” of repeat offenders on the street and too many plea bargains, which happens when defense attorneys have more experience than the DA’s Office, he said.
“That’s where the judge’s responsibility kicks in,” Henion said, adding that judges must look closely at each plea bargain for its merits.
Doehle made the distinction between habitual offenders involved in serous crimes and low-level offenders facing charges such as public intoxication and trespassing.
Innovative programs should be developed for “the people that harass you every time you go to Safeway” like local tribes have, Doehle said.
“Our tribes have implemented Wellness Courts and have worked with getting habitual offenders into those type of programs,” Doehle said, adding that parallel county programs like that should be implemented for people with behavioral problems as seen in other counties.
“The system of running people through the system of arrest, re-arrest and punishment is not working for our system at this point,” Doehle said.
In closing, Doehle said, “If you have questions about how I am as a judge please come to my courtroom. You can come to Department 2 at any time. Talk to attorneys, talk to people who work in the court system, talk to law enforcement and what they will tell you is that the right person got picked for the job based on all of the input that was given. The right person is in the job. The right person is doing a good job, and the right person should stay in the job.”
McElfresh said, “When you look at the ballot it’s up to you to decide who you think is the most experienced and seasoned with the most trial experience in the area of law that’s before a judge. And I’ve covered it all, from civil law to family law and the vast bulk of what’s before us in our particular court is vastly in criminal law. And that’s the kind of experience that you need to look at. Someone who is actually there in trials.”
Henion said, “I’ve spent my career in public service. Local government has also given me an education and that education I would love to return to you by sitting on the bench and making sure you are the beneficiary of that education.”
“If this is a race about qualifications, I invite you to review my website and see if I am the most qualified candidate or not,” Henion said.