It has been more than two decades since Yolo County has had a contested race for an open seat on its Superior Court, but it has one now, with four candidates in a spirited sprint to the June 3 primary.
Vying for a single court seat is a field that appears to bring a little something for everybody interested in who sits in judgment of the county’s legal affairs.
Janene Beronio is a long-serving Yolo Superior Court commissioner, Larenda Delaini is a state deputy attorney general, Fredrick “Rick” Cohen is in private practice as a family law specialist, and John Brennan is a veteran criminal defense lawyer.
Beronio is the establishment candidate, having the backing of virtually the entire judicial and law enforcement communities in the county, as well as 78 percent of the Yolo County Bar Association’s membership.
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For 25 years, Beronio has been a commissioner, appointed by judges to ease some of their burden by handling matters that would otherwise fall to them. For nine years prior to that appointment, she was a Yolo County deputy district attorney.
But Beronio, 63, is not without qualified competition.
Larenda Delaini is highly regarded in the California attorney general’s office, where she has worked as a deputy since 2008. Before that, she was a state prosecutor in Contra Costa County, and then Sacramento County.
In her present position, Delaini, 38, handles a varied array of matters, including criminal appeals and habeas corpus petitions by prisoners contesting their convictions in both state and federal courts.
She has the backing of the California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges, and Hearing Officers in State Employment, or CASE. The organization is the bargaining representative for more than 3,400 legal professionals.
Fredrick “Rick” Cohen, a longtime family law practitioner in Sacramento, boasts of having the backing of “more than two dozen judges, attorneys and elected officials.” Most of those are on the east side of the Sacramento River, although there are a smattering of municipal office holders in Yolo County, including a supervisor and a Davis city councilman.
Cohen, 49, has served as a pro tem (temporary judge) in small claims and family courts in Sacramento and Placer counties.
John Brennan was a prosecutor for more than 10 years, then turned to defense work. He stresses the broader perspective he has gained from being on both sides in the rough-and-tumble world of criminal litigation at the trial court level.
Supporting Brennan, 46, are a number of law enforcement officers and judges from Sacramento, where his practice is based.
The four contestants are after a seat that will be vacant in January, when Judge Stephen L. Mock retires after 24 years on the bench.
There will be a runoff in November’s general election between the top two vote getters if no one garners a majority in the primary.
Two Yolo judges up for re-election are unopposed. They are Steven M. Basha and Timothy L. Fall.
The main plank in Beronio’s platform is her lengthy tenure doing things judges do, but without the title. The core of her stump speech is she knows how to be a judge; she doesn’t have to learn. She tells voters she has spent a quarter of a century preparing for what is a natural transition.
“There are no issues in a judicial election,” said Beronio, who lives in rural Solano County with her husband, a retired Davis police officer. “It’s not about what you believe or don’t believe. It’s simply a matter of whether you can be fair and impartial.
“My opponents have clients they go in and advocate for. They don’t have to make the decisions, and some people can’t do that. They may be fine at it, but they are untested.”
Delaini cites her 10 years teaching at Sacramento City College in its administration of justice program, and her community activism in Davis, where she lives with her husband, a lieutenant in the West Sacramento Police Department.
She points out that she is the only candidate with a wide breadth of experience at the appellate level.
“All the other candidates have functioned primarily in Superior Court, and that becomes a little rote,” Delaini said. “Appellate work is a unique experience, and you see the court system from a different perspective.”
She noted that the work of trial judges is flyspecked by the higher courts and the lawyers who practice there, and her background would allow her to avoid some of the mistakes made by the lower courts.
Delaini, who grew up in Yolo County and has lived there most of her life, decried the fact that two of her opponents – Beronio and Cohen – do not reside in the county.
“When you are making significant decisions for a community, it’s important to have that connection,” she stated. “It makes you more accountable and more in touch with the people you serve.”
Cohen insists he would bring badly needed family law expertise to the Yolo court, but hastens to add that he would be willing, if called upon, to accept another assignment.
He said there has never been a bona fide family law expert on Yolo’s court, yet family law is a large part of its caseload. His opponents lack “the experience and internal fortitude” to hear those cases over the long haul, he added.
“It has been a revolving door,” he said. “It is a very complex area, and takes about a year and a half to learn. Then the judge has moved on to a new assignment and never comes back, and a new one comes in ... The turnover often leaves attorneys not knowing what to expect and how to advise their clients.”
Cohen lives in North Natomas with his wife, a deputy district attorney in Sacramento County.
Brennan’s mantra is “tough on criminals and fair to everyone.”
“I have more experience in the area that counts the most than the other candidates combined,” he said. “I have a criminal law background, and 80 to 90 percent of the caseload in Yolo County is criminal. “I have done more than 100 jury trials and litigated thousands of criminal cases.”
Brennan lives in West Sacramento with his wife, a deputy district attorney in Sacramento County.