Panel rates Poochigian 'not qualified' for state court

SACRAMENTO -- A state bar committee has rated Fresno's Chuck Poochigian as "not qualified" for an appointment to the state appellate court because "he lacks legal practice experience," according to a letter made public Tuesday.

The letter by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation confirms rumors that have swirled in the legal community since August, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nominated the former state lawmaker for a seat on the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno.

The unfavorable rating is only advisory and is one of several factors to be considered by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, a three-member panel that will vote on Poochigian's nomination Thursday in San Francisco.

The Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation praised Poochigian as "intelligent, diligent and articulate," but noted that he "had not practiced law for approximately 21 years" and has "no criminal law experience," according to the letter sent to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George.

George is chairman of the Commission on Judicial Appointments, which includes Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democrat who beat Poochigian in the 2006 attorney general's race; and James A. Ardaiz, the 5th District's presiding justice.

The "not qualified" rating is the lowest of four possible rankings and by definition means the candidate is "possessing less than the minimum qualities and attributes." In 2008, only 15 of 259 judicial candidates evaluated by the commission scored "not qualified," according to the commission's yearly demographic report.

Poochigian, a conservative Republican, worked as a lawyer from 1975 to 1988, when he joined the senior staff of Gov. George Deukmejian, where one of his responsibilities was interviewing judicial candidates. He was promoted to appointments secretary under Deukmejian's successor, Gov. Pete Wilson.

He was elected to the state Legislature in 1994 and served the Fresno area until 2006. After losing the attorney general bid, Poochigian returned to legal practice at the Fresno firm Dowling, Aaron & Keeler, where he has said he specializes mostly in regulatory law outside of the courtroom.

The Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, which includes 36 attorney and public members, said it considered Poochigian's legislative experience, which included a stint as vice chairman of a public safety committee. But "in the commission's view, these experiences did not offset Mr. Poochigian's lack of actual practical legal experience," according to the letter.

Poochigian did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Commission on Judicial Appointments does not track how many candidates with a "not qualified" rating have ever been seated on the bench, said spokeswoman Lynn Holton. It has happened before, most notably in 1996 when then-Gov. Pete Wilson appointee Janice Rogers Brown was confirmed to the state Supreme Court despite an unfavorable rating.

Dozens of Poochigian supporters submitted letters to the judicial commission, including state Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter, a Fowler native. Five witnesses are scheduled to testify on his behalf Thursday. Only one witness is listed to speak in opposition: Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, an influential gay rights group.

Poochigian's unfavorable rating was first reported in mid-August by the Metropolitan News Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Los Angeles that covers courts. The paper, which did not name sources, reported the "not qualified" score days before Schwarzenegger made the appointment. In his report, Editor Roger Grace asserted that Poochigian, if nominated, was "almost certain" to be confirmed by the commission, despite the rating.

Howard Miller, president of the California State Bar Association, recently formed a task force to investigate the leak of the rating, which is supposed to remain confidential until a couple of days before a candidate's hearing.

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