In Part 85, Judge Mader looks back at her reasons for becoming a judge and considers the financial demands placed on the candidates in contemporary judicial races.

You can find links to all installments of Inside the Robe here.


November 1

Why did I run for judge? I couldn’t see myself growing old in the DA’s office. In my fifties, I was working with prosecutors in their twenties, a thirty-year age gap that was bound to widen. I don’t like being the oldest person in the room. Surrounded by judges, many of whom are my age, it’s comfortable to talk about our party lines on our childhood phones or quoting lines from Casablanca and have everyone share knowing glances.

I never had a burning desire to become a judge. I looked at judges as more cerebral than I’d ever be. I knew that I didn’t want to leave crime as my main focus. I enjoy the search for the correct law, but I do not get pleasure from legal writing or academic discussions about where sentencing law is heading. By process of elimination, becoming a judge in a criminal court was an opportunity to stay embedded in criminal justice, and to learn something new. The pay was good, and I thought that I was finally mature enough to succeed.

It was hard giving up the exalted title of “Inspector General.” When I left, the magic fairy dust disappeared. I was a plain old deputy district attorney in an outlying office who once had a position of power. Becoming a Superior Court judge might restore the luster.

The simplest way to become a judge would have been to be appointed by the governor. I applied but was not hopeful. Sticking my neck into the fray too often in my career, especially as inspector general, made me politically toxic. I could only imagine the conversation between Gray Davis, our famously risk-averse governor, and his appointments secretary. “I’ve got this highly qualified woman who’s been a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and the first LAPD inspector general.”

“She sounds fine. We need female judges. But does she have any skeletons in her closet?”

“The only thing you should know is that she argued to save the life of Angelo Buono, the Hillside Strangler.”

“Are you nuts? Can you imagine the ads an opponent would run against me? The screen would show ten pictures of raped and strangled women with the voiceover, ‘Governor Davis claims he is tough on crime. But he appointed a judge who was the defense attorney who argued to spare the Hillside Strangler’s life.’”

The last thing a governor wants is to appoint a judge who might cause them future embarrassment or a scandal.

While it’s disturbing to think that a political opponent would make hay over my legal obligation to defend someone, it is not a stretch to imagine it happening. Appointing me as a judge could well have been political suicide. There could have been other reasons I wasn’t appointed. Taking controversial positions creates enemies, and I had powerful ones at LAPD. The phrase “I am admired by my friends and distinguished by my enemies” comes to mind.

Some attorneys plan their judicial race years in advance. That didn’t happen with me. As our dogs bounded up a path in the Santa Monica Mountains during our weekly Saturday hike, I complained to a friend, also a prosecutor, that I was out of career options in criminal law. My friend suggested that I run for election. “The only downside is that the filing deadline is in three days.” Why not? I decided. This was no more impetuous than deciding with Norman on December 13, 1967, to get married, and to have the ceremony in my parents’ home ten days later. I headed to the County Registrar on Tuesday to enter the race.

I was utterly unprepared. As I searched for the Registrar’s Office in a massive parking area surrounded by government offices, I wondered whether I was making a mistake. The tiny Registrar’s office with its bemused government clerks behind fortified windows, ready to process checks and filing papers, was crawling with potential judicial candidates and their campaign managers. Everyone was trying to decide which of six open seats to run for.

I noticed a rumpled, unshaven, middle-aged man who looked like a reporter lingering by the filing windows. I approached him. “Excuse me, my name is Katherine Mader. I am thinking of running for judge and you look like you know what’s going on.” Lucky me. He was a reporter for the local legal newspaper, and likely the only person in the world with a savant-like recall of every prior L.A. County judicial race. He pointed me to a race where I’d be the only woman, with my opponents a “Court commissioner” and a “Referee.” He said, “Go for that race. You’ll win. No one knows what a commissioner or a referee does. If you put “Criminal Prosecutor” under your name, you’ll win easily.” I had two months to prepare for the primary election and a lot to learn.

November 2

Deciding whether or not to accept campaign contributions was my first decision as a candidate. Today, eighteen years later, candidates raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to run for judge. I didn’t want to put myself in that hole. Even though it is permissible, I found it unsettling to request campaign contributions from attorneys who would someday appear before me. If I could self-finance my election, I would do it. It turned out I was able to do everything that I needed to win by spending around $40,000. I earned that back with the difference between my salary as a DA and my first year’s salary as a judge.

My opponents were not going to break their piggy banks, either, which made it easier for me. Los Angeles County is huge, with millions of potential voters, and it was unrealistic to think I could “press the flesh” of enough people to make a difference. Even if I went to rubber chicken dinners every night for two months and everyone that I met voted for me and told their friends to vote for me, I would maybe earn around 20,000 votes. I needed around 500,000.

Slate mailers, the glossy flyers with lists of endorsed candidates that seem to come from official organizations such as “Crime Victims United” or “Friends of Law Enforcement” are commonly purchased by judge candidates. I discovered that slate mailer organizations are simply money-making ventures and the political positions they purport to represent are bogus—just ways to attract voters. The same company may run different slates on all sides of controversial issues. 

The trick is to lock-up slates early for the lowest price. I even agreed with some slates to pay a “winner’s bonus.” For those slates I put down a small sum, usually $500, to have my name on the slate. I was obligated to pay a few thousand more, but only if I won.

Whether slate mailers are helpful is unknown. Some say slate mailers don’t matter a whit because most people throw them in the garbage without reading them. Others claim candidates should pay for the candidate statement printed in the sample ballot. The ballot statement alone in Los Angeles County could cost over $100,000. That’s English-only and solely for the primary election. I wasn’t springing for that.

Seeking endorsements was critical. Some candidates contact all the judges they know and ask for their endorsements. Then they claim, “I am obviously the most qualified candidate. Look! I have endorsements from 100 judges.”

I began seeking judicial endorsements by asking my good friend, an experienced and savvy court commissioner, for her endorsement. For all purposes, commissioners are assistant judges, hired by the superior court. My friend turned me down. “Of course, I’d like to endorse you. But what if you lose, and I end up working for one of your opponents? They could treat me poorly if they knew that I had supported you.”

I never considered that possibility. I had a lot to master. I felt hurt by my friend’s turndown. I began to think: “I hate putting myself on the line with all the judges I know. What if they don’t like me? I don’t want to cold-call judges and learn that they’re not prepared to give me their endorsement.”

I created an alternative plan. As LAPD inspector general, I met many high officials in city and county government. I also knew law professors often quoted in the press, as well as the District Attorney of Los Angeles County. Why not ask each of them for an endorsement? My list would equal or even trump dozens of random judges. So that’s what I did. In a short time, I gathered endorsements from members of the Los Angeles City Council, the County Board of Supervisors, police officials, police reform advocates, and legal pundits.