Superior Court Judge Gary B. Tranbarger held a comfortable lead tonight over his challenger, Temecula-based attorney Richard T. Nixon, and appeared heading for another six-year term.
Tranbarger had 78,723 votes, or 58.44 percent of the total, just after midnight today. Nixon had only 55,995, or 41.56 percent, according to the Registrar of Voters.
Nixon, a Valley Center resident with a private practice in Temecula, contended the incumbent has a record of not "following the law.'' But the judge said that assertion was completely "made up'' and evidence of his challenger's unfitness for a seat on the bench.
Nixon retired from the Riverside County District Attorney's Office in 2006 after 18 years as a prosecutor. The attorney said he was inspired to run after months of hearing from friends in the legal community about the need "to replace a judge who is not following the law.''
Nixon compiled a string of cases over which Tranbarger presided that the lawyer claims demonstrate the jurist's disregard of public safety and inappropriate exercise of discretion where the law is clear.
Topping the list was the case of George Lewis Thornton. According to court papers, the repeat offender was convicted of robbing a wheelchair- dependent cerebral palsy patient -- whose life he threatened for $20 -- in 1995. Thornton had three felony strikes on his record, warranting a sentence of 35 years to life in prison, according to Nixon, who said Tranbarger set aside two of the defendant's strikes and imposed a 16-year sentence.
The District Attorney's Office appealed, leading the California Fourth District Court of Appeal to conclude that Tranbarger had "abused his discretion,'' court papers state. The case was remanded back to the judge, who - - six years later -- imposed the maximum punishment sought by prosecutors under the three-strikes law.
"This is representative of Judge Tranbarger's conduct,'' Nixon said. "It's that kind of outright refusal to follow the law that should worry people.'' Tranbarger, 60, of Riverside, said that he chose to set aside the strikes on Thornton's record because the defendant "had no acts of violence in his background.''
In their decision, however, the appellate justices noted that in one of his earlier robberies, Thornton had broken into a 77-year-old neighbor's house and thrown him to the floor before stealing his money.
The Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys' Association, which has contributed more than $15,000 to Nixon's campaign, lists other cases in which, the union argues, Tranbarger exceeded his authority.
According to the RCDDA, while presiding over the case of Victor Ung last year, the judge held off-the-record meetings with the prosecution and defense, trying to pressure the D.A.'s office to plea-bargain the case. Ung is accused of multiple counts of child molestation for allegedly sexually abusing his daughter from the time she was 3 years old until she was 13. If convicted, the defendant could face 80 years in prison.
According to the RCDDA, Tranbarger believed some of the charges should be dropped, and when prosecutors refused to negotiate a deal, the judge "began making rulings to get a desired result.''
Jurors hung 9-3 in favor of convicting Ung on a number of counts, but found him not guilty of possessing child pornography. Another trial has since been held, with jurors deadlocking again -- this time 10-2 in favor of acquittal. The D.A.'s office is expected to move ahead with a third trial later this year.
Tranbarger declined to comment on the case. "My concern with the D.A.'s association and Mr. Nixon is that they make stuff up when they try to come up with a reason as to why I shouldn't be re- elected,'' the judge said. "People should not make stuff up just to try and win a political race. If you can't be trusted to tell the truth as a candidate, why should anyone trust that you will be a good judge?''
-- Peter Surowski contributed to this report