The six candidates for a judgeship on the Stanislaus County Superior Court debated in front of a crowd of lawyers and sitting judges in Modesto on Thursday night, just a month before the first competitive race for a seat on the bench since 2002.
The candidates running in the June election to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Judge Donald Shaver include county Court Commissioner Nancy Williamsen, prosecutor Shawn D. Bessey, and attorneys Martha Carlton-Magaña, Philip A. Pimentel, William Mussman and Geoff Hutcheson.
Williamsen sought to position herself as the candidate to most easily handle the shift to a judgeship. As a court commissioner, she is chosen by county judges to make decisions on a limited number of legal matters.
But Williamsen acknowledged making the change from law firm work 11 years ago was rocky.
"Making that transition is not always smooth," she said. "I'm up and running."
Hutcheson and Carlton- Magaña said they have plenty of experience trying cases in front of judges.
"I have tried murder cases, I have tried petty theft cases, I have tried million-dollar civil cases," Hutcheson said. "There's not a subject I haven't handled in court."
Carlton-Magaña estimated she'd tried about 100 criminal cases. But she pledged to leave behind any personal or political agenda as a defense attorney.
"I'm not part of a team in the courtroom," she said. "I'm the person who has to make the hard call. Nobody on either side of that bar has a leg up because of my prior life or their prior life."
Bessey, who has most recently prosecuted gang cases for the county district attorney's office, touted his experience working as a victim's advocate.
"I've been there with victims of crime through the judicial process and I've seen it through their eyes," he said.
Tough on crime?
One question made reference to a slogan, "Tough on crime," used by Mussman in his campaign materials.
Pimentel, who practices family law, argued the question was more appropriate for candidates for county sheriff -- not judges.
"There's no one here that's going to say 'I'm going to take every case ... that involves a gang member and say he's going to prison for life,' " Pimentel said. "That's not what a judge is supposed to do. I don't believe it would be appropriate to say I'd be tough on crime."
Mussman, a private attorney who focuses on corporate law, said being tough on crime means protecting society and giving closure to victims.
"You need to teach the person who has done something wrong that it is not acceptable," he said.
Hutcheson said the moniker doesn't have much meaning when treatment programs are being slashed and prisoners are released early because of overcrowding in prisons and jails.
"When there's no tools with the judiciary to work with, 'tough on crime' doesn't have much meaning at all," he said.
During the last competitive county race, seven candidates faced off in a March primary that year for a seat vacated by the retirement of Judge Edward Lacy Jr.
Then-Deputy District Attorneys Linda McFadden and Alan Cassidy emerged from that field, with McFadden defeating Cassidy.
Shaver, 60, was appointed to the court in 1990 after working as a prosecutor in the district attorney's office for 13 years. Shaver left the bench in Stanislaus County for four months in 2006, when he served with the International Criminal Court in The Hague on a temporary assignment in The Netherlands.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.