By Fred Johnson, Susan Bassi and Lexi Logan
In less than a month, voters in several California counties will chose judges from a pool of candidates that include incumbent judges charged with misconduct, a prosecutor accused of covering up her attorney husband’s drug problem, questionable political motives, hateful speech and offensive social media posts.
Over the course of his political career, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom has appointed more than 300 attorneys to the bench, but on March 5, 2024, voters will get their periodic, limited say when it comes to a handful of lawyers seeking voter approval to become judges. Among the state’s judicial elections, three counties in particular feature colorful, controversial candidates.
Humboldt County Incumbent Accused of Pontoon Boat Lap Dances, Cannabis Oil Vaping, Calling Public Defender a “Jewboy,” and Affair with Court Employee
In addition to facing a challenger in his retention election, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Gregory Kreis also faces a misconduct investigation by the Commission on Judicial Performance, (CJP) the state agency responsible for judge oversight.
In a 33-page complaint, alleging 19 counts of judicial misconduct, including multiple instances at an outdoor social event organized by a public defender’s wife. At the Shasta Lake event, Kreis allegedly vaped cannabis oil before boarding a pontoon boat. While drinking alcohol on the boat, Kreis pantomimed a lap dance for a public defender’s wife, told the wife of a different public defender her husband was a “Jewboy,” and made other obnoxious and offensive remarks.
The CJP complaint also recites Kreis’ sordid history of extra-marital affairs, including with the court family law facilitator, retaliating against a county attorney who tried to disqualify the judge, cocaine abuse, failing to disclose conflicts of interest in multiple cases, misogynistic, homophobic and racist conduct towards attorneys and litigants.
Kreis has been a judge since 2017 when he was appointed to the bench by then-Governor Jerry Brown. The upcoming retention election will be the first time Kreis will face voters in the county who are aware of his personal and professional conduct. Voters who will determine if he remains on the bench.
At the same time he is facing public discipline from the CJP, Kreis will square off in the March 5 election against former public defender April Van Dyke, who is asking voters to send Kreis to the unemployment line.
Van Dyke has been endorsed by Run for Something, where she claims she will bring equality by being thoughtful about the justice she would levy in the courtroom by treating everyone with respect.
Streets of San Francisco: Copaganda Public Safety Cliché’s and LGBTQ+ Politics
In San Francisco, Albert Chip Zecher, a gay man appointed by Gavin Newsom to the board of directors of UC Law San Francisco (formerly Hastings), and former assistant district attorney Jean Myungjin Roland are challenging Judge Michael Isaku Begert for his seat in the March election. The candidates seeking to unseat Judge Begert claim the election is a referendum on public safety issues.
Critics say the campaigns echo the politics seen during the controversial recall of former district attorney, Chesa Boudin. Politics that saw successor district attorney Brooke Jenkins tied to misconduct claims following the 2022 recall.
Jean Myungjin Roland has been the subject of negative media coverage in connection to her husband’s alleged drug and alcohol use.
Chip Zecher is the brother of Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Vanessa Zecher, a controversial judge and former family law attorney who is known for her active involvement in the county’s secret Bench-Bar-Media Committee (BBMP), exposed by the Vanguard in 2023.
Silicon Valley Judge Election Campaign Controversies
The 2024 judge elections will be the first held in Santa Clara County since the BBMP was shuttered in 2023. Since 1988, judge election candidate forums in the county were held out of the public eye at the Three Flames restaurant in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood. The forums were funded with the court’s grand jury budget, and organized by judges with only select members of the public and media invited.
The only public forums for judge candidates during the time the BBMP was in operation, including during the recall of Judge Aaron Persky, were hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV).
On February 6 of this year, the LWV hosted judicial candidates seeking to replace judge Vincent Chiarello for seat five of the Santa Clara County Superior Court. The candidates included two seasoned prosecutors from the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, Jay Boyarsky and Johnene Stebbins, as well as divorce attorney Nicole Ford.
Boyarsky, District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s chief of staff, was an active BBMP member. He is known for his controversial practices related to media coverage and politics. Most notably he once used a fake name and called into a radio station, pretending to be a supporter of Rosen’s during the political campaigns related to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office (DAO). Boyarsky has been nominated and supported by district attorney Jeff Rosen and his colleagues James Gibbons Shapiro and Alaleh Kianerci.
During the LWV candidate forum, Boyarsky noted his role in the Brock Turner prosecution. A prosecution assigned to DDA Alaleh Kianerci, who has publicly supported Boyarsky’s candidacy for judge.
Boyarsky claimed that in addition to supporting Kianerci during the Brock Turner prosecution, he played a prominent role in the dissemination of the Emily Doe letter. A letter reportedly written by the victim at the center of the Turner prosecution, Channel Miller. However, according to records obtained by the Vanguard, the letter appears to have been largely coordinated and crafted by Stanford University Law Professor Michele Dauber and Kianerci. The letter generated national and local media coverage that played a significant role in the June 5, 2018 recall of Judge Persky, as previously reported by the Vanguard.
Johnene Stebbins attended BBMP meetings and is supported by the county’s sitting judges, many of whom were BBMP members when judicial candidate forums were held out of the public eye.
Nicole Ford is the only private attorney listed on the Santa Clara County judge ballot. During the LWV forum she claimed to have spent her legal career in family law supporting “survivors.”
Victims of domestic violence and local advocates have pointed out that in her private practice, Ford has repeatedly failed victims of domestic violence. Most notably, in a 2015 case where Ford failed to obtain a restraining order in a high-profile custody case involving a 49er football player whose abuse was captured on video and published by TMZ a year later.
Lawyers and Judges on Social Media
Shortly before he announced his candidacy, Chip Zecher began blocking social media connections of those critical him and his sister, Judge Vanessa Zecher. A tactic former President Donald Trump was criticized for after he blocked members of the public critical of him on Twitter. A tactic courts have said violates the First Amendment.
Vanessa Zecher, a longstanding BBMP member, has been criticized for using her public position as a judge for political purposes related to the LGBTQ+ community, where her brother, Chip Zecher, has been a prominent member in Santa Clara County. Additionally, public records obtained by the Vanguard show Judge Zecher used her public position and court resources to threaten a restraining order against members of the public critical of her management and supervision of family law cases where transgender attorney BJ Fadem and Nicole Ford had been assigned to represent children as minors counsel.
Before she announced her candidacy for judge, Nicole Ford was regularly assigned to represent children in divorce and custody cases by Judge Vanessa Zecher and other Santa Clara County Superior Court judges. Assignments commonly referred to as minors counsel in California’s family courts. Minors counsel assignments are highly controversial and fiercely debated on social media where Ford has often been depicted as a pig, which she has been known to label as “harassment” in court filings.
In connection with her minors counsel assignments, public records show Ford was sued in small claims court by a professional supervised visitation provider who claimed Ford was using her minors counsel assignments to engage in unfair business practices that included interfering with business the supervisor had with parents to monitor custody exchanges during contentious divorce and custody cases.
Several of the attorneys named in the small claims case filed against Nicole Ford are supporting Ford’s candidacy, including Liz Goodley, Gretchen Boger, and the court attorney used in family law cases as a free private judge, Sharon Roper. Family members of divorce attorney Kevin Hutchenson and BJ Fadem were also included in Ford’s judicial candidate nomination papers recently viewed by the Vanguard.
Queen of Chaos on Social Media
Before Ford announced her candidacy for judge, she was the subject of several postcard mailing campaigns that claimed she was abusive to children. Her private clients have additionally complained that she overbills and underrepresents them by missing hearings and deadlines, often resulting in her clients losing in court or being subject to monetary sanctions.
After Ford announced her candidacy for judge, parent activist groups reportedly researched Ford’s social media footprint. They claim to have found over 28,000 positive hits. Using Instagram, Twitter, and other social media accounts Ford reportedly works under pseudo names to project images parents claim show excessive use of alcohol and other images they describe as crude, offensive, and quasi-pornographic.
“These images are completely inappropriate for an attorney appointed to represent children to display on social media,” one parent who wished to remain anonymous told the Vanguard.
Using handles that include names such as “Agent of Chaos” and “Chaos Reigns,” social media accounts reportedly linked to Ford show an outright disdain for parents of children she is assigned to represent in family court cases. These accounts also indicate Ford’s willingness to incite conflict, rather than settle disputes and work in a collaborative manner.
Arguably, the social posts convey images of the very conduct that Judge Kreis is currently charged with exhibiting in the formal Commission on Judicial Performance proceedings that parallel the state’s local judge elections which will be held on March 5, 2024.