By Paul Young
A 25-year Inland Empire defense attorney said seeing judges “playing games” and treating the public unfairly prompted him to challenge a longtime Riverside County probate judge, a man who said he stands by his record as a jurist and insisted he is only interested in fairly “applying the law.”
Criminal attorney Michael Kennedy of Joshua Tree is contesting Superior Court Judge James “Jim” Cox of Indian Wells in the June 5 election. Kennedy, married with two adult children, has been working as a defense lawyer since the mid-1980s, specializing over the past decade in driving-under- the-influence cases.
Cox, also married with two children and grandchildren, was appointed to the county bench by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996, and since 2004 has served as the county’s supervising probate judge, working out of Palm Springs.
Voters countywide will determine the winner of the judicial race.
Whichever candidate prevails will serve a six-year term.
“Somebody says `judge’ and people go, `Oh, ah — God’s gift to intellectual precision,”’ Kennedy told City News Service. “But many judges are political hacks who got there because of who they know or from going to the right cocktail parties. Some are smart and some are stupid. I’ve seen them pick on the unrepresented public. But these guys forget that the public is in charge. They are public servants. The public is the master.”
Kennedy, who describes himself as a constitutionalist or “originalist” when it comes to interpreting the law, said he is distressed by judges who fail to realize they’re “umpires” and not advocates for the government. He pointed to an encounter with Cox in the late 1990s as an example.
According to Kennedy, he had received a traffic citation and his arraignment for the infraction was in a Banning courtroom where Cox was filling in for a traffic court commissioner. The attorney said he was “aghast” when he witnessed Cox allegedly tell the defendants lined up before him that if they pled guilty, they would receive reduced fines, but if they pled not guilty, they would have to post bail before they would be granted a trial.
Kennedy said he told the judge to “stop playing games” with him, citing a constitutional requirement that a person be deemed a “flight risk” before imposing bail. He said Cox pushed his case to the bottom of the pile and then dismissed it after the other defendants’ cases had been disposed and they had left the courtroom.
Cox told CNS that his opponent’s allegations “make absolutely no sense.”
“I think Mr. Kennedy’s made this up in order to garner support,” the judge said. “It’s probably no coincidence that he raises this issue more than 10 years after the fact, when the records are no longer available.”
Cox said whenever he presided in traffic cases, he adhered to the state’s bail schedule, and he denied ever threatening to withhold someone’s right to a trial.
The judge also stated that he used his discretion to reduce bail and “many, many times” exempted defendants from paying anything when they could prove financial hardship.
According to Kennedy, he has heard from fellow attorneys that Cox will “play favorites” in his courtroom, allowing some lawyers representing clients in probate cases to charge higher fees, while disfavored attorneys’ fees are halved.
“Nobody can go on the record and complain because if you do — there go your fees,” Kennedy said.
Cox replied that his opponent has probably been talking to attorneys whose fees have been chopped because the judge believed they were exorbitant or unjustified.
“A probate judge is known as a super-fiduciary. When an attorney is not doing his or her job, such as filing reports on their accounts, then the super-fiduciary orders them to appear and explain,” Cox said. “If they try to charge in response to orders to appear, then, yes, I’ll reduce their fees for that. It’s the conservatee’s money. That old man or that old lady has to pay from whatever funds they have for a conservator (to take care of their affairs.) It’s the duty of a judge to review fee requests.”
Cox said his nearly 16 years as a jurist have been unblemished.
“I do my job and follow the law,” the judge said. “The job of the trier of fact is listening to both sides and applying the law.”
He said his endorsements from every sitting county judge, as well as the Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys’ Association, speak to his credibility and performance.
Kennedy highlighted Cox’s endorsements as evidence of his being a political insider.
“Establishmentarians will always side with whoever’s part of the establishment,” the attorney said. “We used to have the finest judiciary in the world 30 years ago. But it has diminished. The only way to regain it is by being a part of the solution. That’s why I’m in this race.”
Kennedy’s endorsements include Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio and attorney Aissa Wayne, one of actor John Wayne’s four daughters.