The debate Wednesday between the two candidates in Fresno County’s lone judicial race was billed as a chance to hear them express their views about today’s leading legal issues.
Instead, Lisa Gamoian and Rachel Hill spent much of their time reciting their credentials and endorsements, trading verbal jabs and addressing a mysterious email that attacked Hill as an “ultra left-wing” liberal. Hill called the email “outrageous and absurd.”
“It does not come from my campaign,” Gamoian told a gathering of about 170 people at the Bench, Bar, Media event at the Downtown Club in Fresno. The sponsoring organization is a collection of professionals from the judicial, legal and media fields.
Gamoian suggested that Hill’s own campaign put out the email to throw suspicion on Gamoian.
Gamoian, 56, and Hill, 51, are facing off in the Nov. 4 election after beating three other candidates in the June primary.
They are like night and day.
Gamoian, who is single, was born and and raised in Selma, the daughter of a raisin farmer. She is a graduate of Fresno State and Hastings Law School in San Francisco.
Hill was born in New York and is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana. She came to Fresno in 1990 and is married to Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Skiles.
Neither of them has children.
Gamoian bills herself as Fresno’s No. 1 homicide prosecutor, having worked for the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office for 24 years. She works now as assistant district attorney, making her No. 3 in the office.
The bulk of her endorsements come from the Fresno Police Officers’ Association, Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association and other law enforcement unions, as well as Sheriff Margaret Mims, former Sheriff Steve Magarian and county Supervisors Henry Perea, Debbie Poochigian, Judy Case McNairy and Phil Larson.
Her uncle, Fresno developer Ed Kashian, has donated at least $115,000 to her campaign.
“I am the best, most qualified candidate to make the courts more efficient,” Gamoian said. “I am the person they trust to be the next Fresno County judge.”
Hill said her credentials as a civil lawyer, prosecutor, defense attorney and adjunct law professor show a breadth of experience that allows her to bring a more balanced approach to the bench.
Her endorsements include a majority of the judges on the Fresno County bench, Justices Brad Hill, Gene Gomes and Rosendo Peña of the California 5th District Court of Appeal, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, Fresno City Council Members Lee Brand, Paul Caprioglio, and Steve Brandau and former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry.
She also has the endorsements of Jarrett Cline and Steve Smith, two judicial candidates who lost in the primary. The third candidate, Charles Magill, has declined to endorse Gamoian or Hill.
Hill said because judges have seen both her and Gamoian in action, their endorsements mean she is best suited for the job.
“I won’t come to court with an agenda. I don’t have a myopic view,” she said. “I will be fair and bring a broader perspective to the court.”
They are seeking to replace Judge Robert H. Oliver, who is retiring after nearly 20 years of service. (Oliver has endorsed Hill.) The term is for six years. The position pays about $178,000 a year.
During the debate, the candidates sat at tables separated by moderator Bill McEwen, opinion page editor of The Fresno Bee.
The set-up was a good idea because Gamoian accused Hill of being unqualified: Hill had tried three times to get a governor to appoint her to the bench, but was unsuccessful. Hill then contended that Gamoian tried several times to be appointed a court commissioner, a person who is appointed by the Fresno County bench to preside over traffic and misdemeanor cases.
Gamoian said she only threw her name in the hat for that job one time — in the 2005-06 fiscal year.
“I don’t know her source,” Gamoian said. “Maybe it’s the same person who sent the email about her.”
The crowd was comprised mainly of judges and lawyers and it appeared to be pro-Hill as most of the questions were directed at Gamoian.
But that didn’t bother Gamoian, who said she will work hard under pressure and “not rely on what one’s spouse is doing.”
Hill bristled at the accusation, saying she has always exercised independent judgment and worked long hours. She also noted that she worked as a lawyer about a half a dozen years longer than her husband.
Gamoian also spent time criticizing the Fresno County judicial bench.
“You are stewards of taxpayers’ money,” Gamoian said. “You are public servants, not vice versa.”
Gamoian said judges have contributed to “a culture of continuance.” Many times, defense lawyers ask for their cases to be delayed without giving a valid reason, and still a judge grants it, she said. This practice, she said, has contributed to a crowded county jail and the resulting daily release of 40 to 60 inmates.
If elected, Gamoian said she will work long hours to ensure cases move through the courts.
Hill said Gamoian doesn’t have a grasp of the issue.
She said judges work hard to hear cases and keep inmates in jail. One reason the courts are overwhelmed, she said, is because the Public Defender’s Office is overloaded with cases.
If a case goes to trial without a prepared defense lawyer, it could be grounds for an appeal, Hill said. “The case will likely get overturned and that would be a waste of taxpayers’ money,” she said, noting that the victims will then have to come back to court and testify in a new trial. “Let’s do it right the first time.”