Bill Boyarsky
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June 15, 2012

Berman, Sherman plot for November

Rep. Howard Berman figures a substantial turnout in November—more than doubling the size of the paltry June primary vote--will push him ahead of Rep. Brad Sherman, who outpolled him in that San Fernando Valley election.

Sherman, of course, doesn’t agree. A compilation by Sherman’s campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, shows the size of the task facing Berman, the 29-year Democratic congressman in his race against Sherman, who has served in the House for 15 years. Reapportionment put them in the same district, the newly created 30th.

In the primary, Sherman finished ahead of Berman 42.4 percent to 32.4 percent. Voters from the old Sherman district are now a majority in the new one, and his support from them put him ahead of Berman. Voters from Berman’s old district who were placed in the new constituency continued to support him. But Sherman carried the neutral voters who had not been represented by either him or Berman.

“In all a very good result for Sherman,” Skelton said in e-mail. “He won his district by more than Berman won his, and Sherman won the neutral territory handily.”

Brandon Hall, Berman’s campaign consultant, placed a different interpretation on the numbers. He told me that the turnout in the primary was “exceptionally low.” Just 88,605 of 369,067 registered voters cast ballots. That means 280,462 voters are in play, more than three times the number of the primary electorate. In other words, this is a new campaign.

Hall said the non-voters, far outnumbering the voters, “will be a more favorable electorate” for Berman, aiming at more centrist or independent voters. It could also be more favorable to a Berman campaign that is trying to look almost bipartisan, with support from Republican big names as well as Democratic office holders who have worked with him in Congress and his previous years in the state legislature.

In addition, the Berman side promises a hard-hitting campaign. That would be a change from the primary where Berman, rusty after years of no-competition elections, didn’t seem to know how handle Sherman’s aggressiveness. He improved as the primary campaign went on. Now, he’s taking direct aim at Sherman’s record. “He’s only passed three pieces of legislation, two of them naming post offices,” Hall said.

When I passed this on to the Sherman camp, the congressman called me to defend his record and assault Berman’s. Berman, he said, passed no bills in his first 12 years, not uncommon in Congress where legislation is cooperative. “Based on his own standards, he should have resigned,” Sherman said. “This is an insane, ridiculous, malevolent way to judge a congressman.”

He said he shaped and improved important legislation. “I had more to do with Dodd-Frank (the financial reform law) than anyone except Dodd and Frank,” he said. “I took the bad stuff out.” He followed up with an e-mail listing the successful bills on which he’s worked. “I believe in working with other members of Congress no matter who gets the credit. That's why I've cosponsored 140 bills that are now law,” he said.

That’s just one of the issues that will be explored in the next few months of rough campaigning. Democratic insiders have decried the two Democrats opposing each other in an expensive campaign. But I’m looking forward to the next few months. Isn’t this what democracy is about?

June 6, 2012

Courts broke but owed $7.5 billion

One of the best examples of why government doesn’t work is the $7.5 billion in fines and penalties for traffic and criminal offenses that remain uncollected while courtrooms are closed and employees fired.

This hasn’t gotten much notice except for stories by California Watch, the non-profit investigative news gathering organization, and the Los Angeles Metropolitan News-Enterprise, which covers legal affairs.

I heard about it from Lloyd W. Pellman, former Los Angeles county counsel who is now in private practice. Pellman and another lawyer, David Farrar, have asked the Judicial Council, policy body for the state courts, to do something about collecting the money and using it for financially strapped trial courts around the state. Farrar’s firm collects debts for government agencies. Pellman’s firm, Nossaman LLP, represents Farrar. As the county’s chief legal officer from 1998 to 2004, Pellman knows plenty about county and court financing.

In a letter to the Judicial Council, Pellman warned that the closing of courts is depriving California access to the justice system unless they can afford to pay lawyers who would finance, through fees, expenses usually paid by government. “If the current trend continues, this state is headed for a two-tier system of justice,” Pellman wrote. “Only those whose attorneys can afford to underwrite the costs of court reporters and increased filing fees or who can afford to pay such expenses themselves will be able to proceed with litigation with a record for appeal. “I don’t want to see that happen in my personal or professional lifetime.”

In other words, unless you can afford a well connected lawyer with clout, don’t hold your breath until your divorce, civil suit or criminal prosecution is decided.

Pellman and Farrar urged the Judicial Council to use some muscle and get the courts to wring the money from the scofflaws. The money would be split between cities and counties, which make the arrests, and the courts but under the Pellman-Farrar proposal, the courts would get 40 percent of it.

Other lawyers familiar with the system say the money is hard to collect. Much of it is owed by poor people. It’s all but impossible to get money from many of them and costly to jail the non-payers.

I can see the obstacles. In addition, the courts, run by judges and other lawyers, make everything complicated and hard to change. You ought to read the procedures for dividing the fines between the various levels of government.

But courtrooms are being closed in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, Pomona, the Antelope Valley, San Fernando, Inglewood and other places in Los Angeles County. With $7.5 billion out there uncollected, these legal minds and their political allies ought to be able to figure out a solution.

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