Judge Goethals’s Ruling Gives Rackauckas’s ‘Virtual Unopposition’ — and 77,500 Other Voters — Reason for Hope

Judge Goethals blue and brownWhen OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was sworn in to his fifth term of office this January, I was featured — although not by name — in the third paragraph of his speech:

Judge [David O.] Carter [is] my secret good luck charm, because since he started administering the oath of office, I have run virtually unopposed.

“Virtually” — that’s the nod to me.  It’s a term as dismissive as Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder thought she could defend.  But for my challenge to him last year, he would have run unopposed, period.  But today I don’t feel particularly “virtual” — and neither should the 77,472 other people besides me (slightly more than 8 out of every 30 voters) who opposed his re-election.  Something big happened today — something not that unthinkable and maybe we common citizens helped it along.

The long-suppressed, long-closeted, uncounted opposition to Tony Rackauckas’s rein of abuse has come to recognize that it not only exists, but that it is not all that small — 26.7 may be a smallish percentage, but 77,500 is not a small number in absolute terms.   It’s a foundation upon which one can build.  And changing the minds of just a third of the voters in the Rackauckas camp last year — in a race where, instead of me, they might have a well-funded candidate with direct prosecutorial experience — is not such a tall order.

(By the way — despite what you might hear from some vile-tempered walrus-like bloggers elsewhere — this is why running against these entrenched candidates is so important.  One problem with Orange County politics is that so many people have gone unchallenged that we don’t even know the size of the protest vote.  After solid but not overwhelming wins in 1998 and 2002, Rackauckas had gotten 100% of the vote in 2006 and 2010.  I had people tell me that, without a serious campaign, I’d receive maybe 15% against the incumbent DA.  I got almost twice that.  That’s even more clear of my 44.9% in my race against Bob Huff in 2012; SD-29 is now firmly on the Democratic Party’s radar this year, to an extent it wouldn’t be if Huff had notched another 100% victory margin.)

One of the grievances that I expressed against Rackauckas in that election involved his handling of the Seal Beach Salon Massacre prosecution of Scott Dekraii — who had already confessed to the crimes — which was bungled due to an awe-inspiring disregard for civil rights and criminal procedure that has since led to the judicially-ordered release of gang members and more.

If you’re not familiar with the facts of what happened earlier today and its context, you can get a good objective rundown from this Huffington Post article and a longer review streaked with subjectivity and righteous indignation — very satisfying to read — by the Weekly’s Scott Moxley, with whom I very much enjoy being on the same side when it happens.  Moxley tends to be a supporter of law enforcement, but not so much of Rackauckas, and his indignation at how people whom he considers honest and good have had to swallow and spout the DA’s swill in order to remain employed is bracing.  Either now, or once you’re done with this story, you should definitely read it.

Here’s a taste, culminating with a very very important quote, coming after a paragraph from Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders (who is clearly the main hero of this whole sordid story) and Rackauckas’s Deputy Howard Gundy (who is decidedly not):

“The [OCSD deputies’] lying was extraordinary,” Sanders said at today’s hearing. “The fact that they lied and the amount that they lied isn’t a debatable point. The question shifts to the DA’s office: What have they done [in response]? They should have picked up the baton and gone after the deputies. . . . This is some of the most deplorable conduct. What’s supposed to happen is that they find this as despicable as we do, but there doesn’t appear to be a willingness to stop it.”

Astonishingly, Gundy replied that Sanders’ argument was “legally nothing” and would have received an “F” grade if it had been made in law school.

“The intersection of the law and the facts does not support [Sanders’] position,” he said.

The judge, a former OCDA homicide prosecutor, disagreed today and altered a previous decision.

In an August ruling, Goethals declined to meaningfully punish the prosecution for cheating. But Sanders later discovered evidence that OCSD hid TRED, an entire jail-records system, in the Dekraai case as well as in all other criminal case for more than a decade, convinced the judge to reopen a special evidentiary hearing and boxed in jail deputies Ben Garcia and Seth Tunstall, who in February pretended they’d suffered amnesia about the system during last year’s hearings.

Rackauckas’ staff in the courtroom audience-seating section reacted immediately to the ruling by shaking their heads and pounding out angry phone text messages. One veteran prosecutor even referenced OCDA’s revenge desire to kill Goethals’ career on the bench, saying, “At least, he won’t be around much longer.”

(The judge’s term expires next year.)

“At least he won’t be around much longer,” he threatened.  Oh, dive straight to hell, “one veteran prosecutor” — and that was my sixth try at writing that sentence after cycling through five expletives that I want to exclude from a piece that might be read by the relatively prim.  Many of us will raise money nationally if necessary in order to re-elect Judge Goethals after this, despite his being much more conservative about “law and order” issues than we’d like.  He’s shown integrity and bravery, and I would LOVE to see the OCSD office go after him on that basis, because it would further build the ranks of those who have had more than enough of this craziness from “law enforcement” — yeah, you’ve earned those scare quotes — hereabouts.

As things stand, the only reasons why I’d expect not to support Judge Goethals for re-election are if (1) Scott Sanders is the sole candidate running against him, which I don’t expect, or (2) Rackauckas leaves office early, as many of us have expected might happen, and there’s a special election in which Goethals runs for District Attorney.  (Remember: before he ran for DA 17 years ago, Rackauckas was a judge.)  Is this some crazy fantasy?  Well, let’s remind ourselves of how the 2018 — or earlier — DA’s race currently stacks up.

Susan Kang Schroeder — recent loser of her first-ever felony case (putting her on even part with her boss for the past couple of decades, who revived his barrister career just in time to punt the Kelly Thomas case) will presumably run — and she’d be horrible.  Supervisor Todd Spitzer is expected to run and — while he’d be endlessly entertaining and at least more fair that his old boss Racky –I’ve had more than a couple of insider figures tell me that they will go to any lengths necessary to keep him from ever becoming DA.  (Being a loose cannon is one thing; being a loose cannon who knows where the bodies are buried is something quite worse, from some people’s perspectives.  I’d wake up out of a persistent vegetative state to vote for Spitzer over Kang Schroeder, and I don’t even like him that much, but I’m not your typical Orange County voter, let alone power broker.)

If Judge Goethals did find himself in a three-person race with Kang Schroeder and Spitzer, and if he were able to make the runoff, he’d likely be the second choice of either camp.  If all three candidates were between 20% and 40% of the vote, that would be the ballgame.  (And then, if that happens, I certainly hope that Moxley will go back to his “veteran prosecutor” and get a nice juicy quote.)

Orange County is so poisoned with ideological-, crony- and partisan-based decisions about who to prosecute and who to let run amok unchecked that it will likely take a long time to undo it.  But what Judge Goethal’s decision tells us is that maybe we are on our way.  We have a pretty big audience already waiting for a reform agenda — and public figures who are willing to give them what they are asking for.  We can demand more, and we can demand better, from our county law enforcement officials.  Especially after Judge Goethals’s rulings,  it’s not inconceivable that we can get it.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)