Five candidates are bumping elbows for the only open Fresno County Superior Court seat, each vying for a chance to replace Judge Robert Oliver, who's retiring this year after nearly 20 years on the bench.
Three current or former Fresno County district attorneys -- plus an administrative law judge and longtime defense attorney -- have hopped into the judge's race, a political rarity.
Judges, who serve six-year terms and are typically appointed by the governor, seldom face challengers when they're up for re-election; a vacant seat is even more unusual. The last open Fresno County judge's seat was in 2008, when then-Fresno County prosecutor Jim Kelley beat out another deputy district attorney, Douglas Treisman. Of the 21 judicial seats up for election this year, only Oliver's empty spot will appear on the ballot since unopposed incumbents aren't listed.
"When a judicial seat is open for election without the incumbent running, it is a great opportunity for qualified candidates to run for the Superior Court bench," said Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth.
The candidates are pitching their own solutions to improve issues that have long vexed the local justice system, among them prison and jail overcrowding and courtroom efficiency.
Lisa Gamoian, Fresno County chief deputy district attorney, has worked as a criminal prosecutor for 24 years. The Selma native is an opponent of the state's prison realignment, which diverted convicted felons to county jails instead of prison cells, and prosecuted Marcus Wesson, who received the death penalty for orchestrating the 2004 murder of nine of his children.
Gamoian said she'd bring toughness to court, adding that her experience trying more than 30 murder cases would help her make hard decisions.
"It's all about public safety for me," she said. "We care about the well-being of our loved ones and I share that and I'm committed to continuing my life's work in public safety."
Two other candidates -- Jarrett Cline and Rachel Hill -- also have worked for the Fresno County district attorney's office.
Cline, deputy district attorney, is a former Porterville police officer who now prosecutes rural crimes. He's been in his current job for nine years; before that, he defended school districts and other organizations as an insurance defense attorney.
Cline has carved out his own platform: he wants the court to use more technology -- he's pitching a Superior Court smartphone app -- to speed up the often lengthy wait-and-see process that comes with judge's packed calendars.
"You use this technology to keep people notified about what cases are coming in front of the judge," he said. "It would make the process more efficient."
Hill is a former deputy district attorney who now works as an adjunct professor at San Joaquin College of Law. She started her career in civil practice at a Fresno law firm before working a decade as a county prosecutor in areas including fraud and domestic violence.
Both Hill and Cline said they'd like to see more specialty courts, like one dedicated to handling crimes committed by veterans.
Hill said watching her husband, Superior Court Judge Jonathan Skiles, triage defendants through his courtroom has helped her cement other priorities, too. If elected, she said, public safety will be her guide when deciding who gets one of the county jail's limited beds.
"It's a very high volume court so you need to be able to make very quick, but very important, decisions," she said.
Also on the ballot: Steven Smith, an administrative law judge with the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, and Charles Magill, a defense attorney whose law partner and wife Laura Guzman Magill died from breast cancer in December.
Smith -- the only acting judge in the race -- has served in his role for five years and hears tax, disability and unemployment cases. The San Francisco native worked as a trial attorney for 20 years, handling felony cases involving child molestation, beatings and other crimes. In 1993 he ran for Fresno City Council, finishing third among seven candidates.
He too wants to streamline the judicial process. Reducing trial delays and declining to assign public defenders to defendants who can afford a private attorney -- a practice he says happens too often -- are his priorities.
"Judges need to run the courtroom, not the attorneys," he said. "If elected, you can anticipate I would have in-chambers meetings to make sure we coordinate how to run the day."
Magill, a 25-year criminal defense veteran, also has worked on religious freedom cases and represented parents in cases involving school districts. He's served as a pro tem judge in Fresno County Superior Court.
Magill said he'd be a strict constitutionalist who would be influenced by his Christian philosophy. If elected, he'd push the court to think more creatively about how to deal with nonviolent offenders who take up county jail beds and crowd out serious criminals.
"I think we can have a court function like we do with drug court, where you have people who are on drug programs, show they're testing, show they're attending meetings," he said. "I can't see why we don't use the same approach to nonviolent felons."
The top two vote-getters in the June 3 primary will face off in November's general election, unless one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes in the primary.
Fresno County Superior Court candidates
Occupation: chief deputy district attorney
Occupation: deputy district attorney
Family: married, two children
Occupation: attorney, adjunct professor
Occupation: administrative law judge
Family: married, three children
Family: widower, five children