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Wed, Apr

LA Public Defender's Write-In Campaign Challenges Victor Avila's Superior Court Bid 

LA POLITICS

JUDICIAL WATCH - Natasha Khamashta, a veteran member of the LA County Public Defender’s Office has decided to launch a longshot effort with a write-in campaign to land a judgeship come primary day, March 5th.  

Admitted to the California Bar some twenty-five years ago, Khamashta currently applies for federal, state and county grants as well as private funding totaling some $5 million dollars In her current capacity as Director of Strategic Growth, and developed an online platform for donations for the department’s website.  

She has served the Public Defender’s Office as a deputy charged with the Collaborative Unit, a resource attorney in the Juvenile Division and Deputy in Charge of the Torrance Branch office where she supervised twelve attorneys while assisting in the daily operations of that unit on issues regarding staff, bench officers, prosecuting agencies and clients.  

A 1994 graduate of the University of California Santa Cruz where she was Commencement Speaker, Khamashta is a 1999 graduate of the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. Before joining the Public Defender’s Office, she spent nearly a decade as a trial attorney and tried more than fifty cases to verdict.  

An expert in grants writing, she is a member of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the California Public Defender’s Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association for Public Defense.  

We spoke with this long shot candidate on why she was running and what she hoped to accomplish in this abbreviated campaign.  

Below is our interview:  

What made you decide to get into this race so late? Has a write-in candidate ever won a countywide race here in Los Angeles?  

I decided to get into this race on February 7th, after opening my ballot and realizing that Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila was running unopposed. Negative opinions of him as a prosecutor by seasoned public defenders spurred my decision to instinctively write my name on the ballot and make it official.  Without an opponent, Mr. Avila will win by default, absent the evaluation by the Los Angeles County Bar Association's Judicial Election Evaluation Committee, that each of the other candidates undergo.

I didn't run initially because I was, and still am, a full-time deputy public defender in addition to serving as a campaign manager for my four public defender colleagues on the ballot: Ericka Wiley, George Turner, La Shae Henderson, and Kim Repecka. During the past several months on the campaign trail, I have uncovered many ways in which the judicial election process in LA can be improved.  Having a candidate run unopposed when there are four candidates in other races, for positions they will hold serving the entire County, seems to be unfair. Also, an unopposed candidate should be vetted by LACBA's JEEC like each of the other candidates.

Despite the dozens of events since November, I have not seen Victor Avila at a single democratic club, union, or other event. Because he is running unopposed, he does not need to answer the important and tough questions from voters. I decided to step in now to bring attention to these critical issues.

I have always wanted to be a judge. My grandfather and two uncles served their communities in West Texas on the bench.  Justice does not have a timeline and recognizing that someone may take the bench unopposed and unvetted, just did not sit well with me. I decided to throw my hat in the ring.

I have the experience, determination and profound commitment to justice that it takes to be an exceptional judicial officer. I am offering the voters of Los Angeles County the best option for Judicial Office No. 93.         

                       
How do you campaign in such a short time frame with voters already casting votes as we speak?


I have been on the campaign trail since November as I am the campaign manager for four fellow public defenders on the ballot. I have attended dozens of fund-raising parties, meetings and endorsement interviews all over the county and via Zoom. I have spoken before democratic club events on behalf of the other candidates to gain endorsements, while the candidates are simultaneously doing the same at other meetings. I will be attending many more until March 5, but now I'll be advocating for myself and my public defender clients. I am also fortunate to have a wide range of contacts throughout the county, state and country due to my career as a public defender of almost 24 years and my various volunteer efforts. Word of mouth, emailing, texting, social media, and asking all of my family, friends, and colleagues to do the same, is my strategy. I also now have a website www.natasha4judge.com that voters can turn to. 

How do you instruct or explain how a voter casts a write-in vote at this juncture?


I explain to people how they can vote for me by showing them my ballot with my name written in, and I ask them to take a picture so they remember how to spell my name, and so they can share it with their circle of friends, family and colleagues. I also tell them to look for the one judicial race on their ballot that only has one option on it and ask them to write-in Natasha below it. Both variations of my name will be counted. 
 
What perspective or point-of-view do you bring to becoming a judge?


I will be a holistic jurist. I will take a broad, all-encompassing approach and bring an interdisciplinary lens to the bench. 

I will encourage Restorative Justice as a method of resolving cases, when legally permissible and when circumstances allow. Restorative Justice involves both the victim and the defendant coming together with professionals, and other parties that are relevant to curing the wrong. For example, if a person breaks a shop keeper's window, Restorative Justice will include the business owner(s), their employees, their family, and community members, sharing the impact the broken window had on the business, employees, and customers. In most criminal cases, the parties never meet, and the victims are left victimized. Restorative Justice provides a safe space for people to come together, share, listen and be heard. Agreements of repayment to repair the window are made, and often include many hours of community service to be completed by the wrongdoer, an apology letter, counseling or other relevant terms.  Restorative Justice participants overwhelmingly feel justice was served and substantial evidence demonstrates this method works. LAPD's 77th Division and Centinela Youth Services, for example, have great success in rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. 

In many circumstances, a jurist is required to sentence a person to prison upon plea or conviction. Most individuals will exit prison and return to our communities. Unfortunately, overwhelming evidence demonstrates that sending people to prison only increases crime and makes our communities less safe. Recidivism rates are high because prisons do not seek to restore and rehabilitate. If legally permissible and warranted, alternatives to prison should be explored and I will encourage this practice.
 
What in your past experience has prepared you to be a jurist?


My entire career has prepared me to be a jurist. Working in the Los Angeles courts as a trial attorney and supervisor for the past two decades, as well as participating in numerous committees that are chaired by incredible judges, have prepared me to become an exceptional jurist.  In my work as a grant proposal writer and social justice program developer, I collaborate with many governmental agencies, community-based organizations, along with jurists. I have witnessed first-hand the incredible power decisions made by judges can have on individuals, families and entire communities. 
 
Compare and contrast yourself with your opponent in this race?


My opponent is a prosecutor and has only worked as a trial attorney. I, on the other hand, am a public defender and have served Los Angeles County in numerous ways outside of my experience as a trial attorney.  

I worked as a trial attorney for nearly a decade, and supervised other attorneys for almost ten years. In my capacity supervising and mentoring trial attorneys, I often worked with bench officers to resolve disputes.  
I have also represented the Public Defender's office on numerous working committees chaired by judges, such as Judge Nash's Psychotropic Medication Committee . I have also represented the Public Defender's office at Probation Commission meetings where I advocated for the end of solitary confinement and pepper spray used in our juvenile halls. I also represented my office at the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, advocating for additional funds to be directed to non-profit and community-based organizations providing services to our youth. In my current capacity as the Director of Strategic Growth and Development, I have been successful in obtaining federal, state, county and private grant monies to enhance services being provided by the Public Defender's office as well as non-profit organizations. I have also been successful in obtaining collaborative grants that benefit services provided by other County agencies as well, such as the Alternate Public Defender, Independent Defense Counsel Office, and District Attorney. My experience, creating and  improving services and conditions for the people of Los Angeles, deem me more qualified than my opponent to serve on the bench.

Unlike my opponent, I have been endorsed by social justice advocates and bench officers that have seen the work that I do, and the power of my collaborative skills. I have been endorsed by members of the Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commission, former members of the Probation Commission, members on the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council and the vice-chair of California's State Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention, to name just a few.

 

Most candidates for judge are either prosecutors or public defenders. Why is that and how will your time as a public defender shape your judicial practices?


Historically speaking, most candidates have been prosecutors. Up until 2022, we rarely ever saw a public defender running for judicial office. In the 2022 Los Angeles County primaries, we had six public defenders on the ballot, a county record. In this election, there are five public defender candidates on the ballot, and as a write-in candidate, I am the sixth public defender running for a judicial office. Working as a public defender for almost 24 years in my varied roles, will positively shape my judicial practice because I bring different experiences to the bench. Unlike typical candidates on the ballot, I have worked to improve systemic countywide practices with various stakeholders. 
 
What are your three criticisms of the judicial system and how can you make an impact to change the status quo?


 1) Our courts are overburdened and underfunded. An increase in funding for the courts would allow cases to be spread out evenly and move through the system in a more efficient way. We can all make an impact by lobbying our elected leaders for budget increases to the courts. 2) Bias remains on the bench. Judicial training on dismantling biases, trauma-informed practices, restorative justice principles and cultural competency is a must. I will do my part to create a more empathetic, progressive judicial system by advancing these ideals. 3) The civil and criminal judicial systems operate in technologically different manners. In civil practice, technology is the norm. In criminal courts, motions still have to be filed in-person. I will work with court leaders to improve access to the courts. 
 
You are a citizen born abroad with a unique story. Tell us why you became a lawyer?


I am a United States citizen by birth, born in Bethlehem, Palestine, to an Arab Christian father and a Caucasian Christian American mother from Texas. I moved to Long Beach, CA, at the age of eight, with my mother and two sisters. My mother was a teacher in both the Bronx, NY and in the West Bank, but became a paralegal in Los Angeles due to LAUSD's hiring freeze in the early 1980’s. I grew up hearing about the legal system, including my mother’s work as a paralegal and her father’s career on the bench in Texas. During my college days at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I interned for the Legal Aid Society in Watsonville, providing tenant housing legal assistance. 

I became an attorney because I grew up knowing I could become one. I had examples, and my mother always encouraged me to become the first female attorney on either side of my family. I am fortunate to have followed her sage advice. 
 
Non-citizens are now allowed to serve on a jury and non-citizens can sit for the California Bar. Should non-citizens be allowed to run for judge?

The only mandatory eligibility requirements to serve as a judge on a California court is to be a member in good standing with the California State Bar as well as having been a member for the preceding ten years or served as a judge of a court of record in California.

  
Generally speaking, is justice being served in Los Angeles?
 

Los Angeles' justice system is complex and dynamic. For justice to be served, government agencies must uphold our laws. The first level of justice requires that police officers abide by those same laws, as part of their oath to protect and serve. Unfortunately, from the point of detention and arrest, justice is often not served. Evidence shows that pretextual profiling of our Black and Brown communities is still ongoing. Black and Brown individuals and groups are stopped and arrested disproportionately more than White individuals. In Los Angeles, we have unsafe and unhealthy living conditions in our jails and juvenile halls, which negatively impacts the mental health and rehabilitation process. This is another form of injustice.
 
Given the circumstances of your campaign, would you run again should you lose?
 

Yes, I will consider running again if I lose. 

What is the one thing you want voters to know about you?
 

I have an eleven year old son named Atticus. I center my work with him in mind and always ask, is this circumstance good enough for Atticus? If it's not, then I strive to improve the situation for everyone. 

 

(Nick Antonicello is a thirty-one-year resident of Venice who is covering the numerous races for the LA County Superior Court come March 5th. Have a take or a tip on these contests? E-mail Antonicello at [email protected].)