Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson jumped into the race for an open judicial seat this week, setting the stage for a potentially intense campaign between himself, a senior prosecutor, and a defense attorney.
The move also raised the prospect that Nelson, should he win the judgeship in June or November, would resign his supervisor post more than two years before his term is up and thus trigger an election to replace him on the county Board of Supervisors.
Nelson publicly announced his desire to seek a judgeship during an interview with Voice of OC last spring. But at the time, he said he would likely run for judge at the end of his term.
Nelson didn’t return a call seeking comment.
He filed paperwork Monday declaring his intent to run for judicial seat 40 on the Orange County Superior Court, which is being vacated by retiring Judge Steve Perk. The website OC Political was the first to report that Nelson had filed for Perk's seat.
Nelson's entry apparently took the other candidates by surprise, with Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin saying he’s ready to go head-to-head.
“I’m not afraid of any type of battle in a political race. I’ve always battled in the courtroom. What I hope the race is about is people picking between a career prosecutor and a career politician,” said Yellin, who until last year was also president of the Orange County Attorneys Association, which represents many of the county’s prosecutors.
The other declared candidate so far in the race, defense attorney Frederick Fascenelli, said Nelson’s move was surprising, given that he was elected to serve as supervisor through the end of 2018.
"I’m just running on my experience and my impartiality," Fascenelli said. "I don’t owe anything to any particular group of people.”
Nelson’s campaign fundraising has been at issue recently, with insiders speculating that the termed-out supervisor was raising money for a judicial run through an account named "Shawn Nelson for Supervisor 2018.”
Late last year, staff at the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) ruled that Nelson couldn't continue to have his account named for an election he couldn't run in, because of term limits. Nelson later changed the name back to 2014.
However, the FPPC did allow him to keep the roughly $100,000 he raised through the 2018 account, which he could use in his judicial race.
Separately from the state law questions, there are claims that Nelson’s fundraising violated the county’s campaign finance law, known as TINCUP.
Campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle, who wrote TINCUP, and a prominent local elections attorney, Fred Woocher, both say Nelson’s fundraising into his supervisor account after the last election is illegal under the county law, because a person must be a candidate in a future supervisor election to raise funds into a supervisor account.
However, the District Attorney’s office has cleared Nelson, citing a secret County Counsel memo from 2008. There’s still a possibility of the question being put before a judge, if a civil suit is brought by any county resident, which is allowed under TINCUP.
The seat is up for election in the June primary. If a candidate wins a majority of the votes, he or she wins outright. If that doesn’t happen, a runoff would take place in November.
Because the incumbent judge isn’t running, the Wednesday deadline to apply for the seat was extended to next Tuesday at 5 p.m. The deadline was also extended for judicial offices 3 and 49, for the same reason.
In addition to his campaign war chest, which had a balance of $162,000 at the beginning of the year, Nelson’s strength will likely be his name recognition among voters.
On the other hand, candidates’ titles on the ballot are considered highly important in judicial races, and Yellin will likely have his senior prosecutor position as the title.
Endorsements also matter, with the biggest-name endorsement in a race like this probably coming from District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. The DA hasn’t announced who, if anyone, he will endorse in the race, though Rackauckas and Nelson are considered political allies.
Correction (Feb. 12, 12:11 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Larry Yellin as the current president of the prosecutors' union. He left the post last year. We regret the error.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.