It’s rare when somebody challenges a sitting judge for re-election, but Deputy District Attorney Cole McKnight — a prosecutor with a track record of putting away violent gang members — said it’s imperative to ensure Kern County has a shot at electing a judge with his background in gang crimes.
He’s challenging Judge John L. Fielder, who has been on the bench for 38 years and presided over a variety of cases, including family law, criminal cases, and most recently, the master arraignment calendar for misdemeanors. He was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1980.
McKnight says his experience in the courtroom and knowledge of the evidence code qualifies him to take Fielder’s seat.
“The most important thing for a judge is to know the evidence code,” McKnight said. “It’s what ensures both sides get a fair trial, and I’ve been using the evidence code the last 11 years daily and I know it well.”
Fielder argued that it takes a lot more than courtroom experience to qualify somebody for a judgeship.
“The fact that he’s been in a courtroom as an attorney doesn’t mean a thing about knowing what to do as a judge,” Fielder said. “They are very different roles.”
Fielder was critical of McKnight, who hasn’t applied for a judge pro tem position or sought work as a court commissioner to gain experience in the field. Fielder began his career as a trial attorney before becoming a court commissioner, a position that functions as a judge, but under the oversight of sitting judges.
McKnight, however, said it was important for him to challenge Fielder’s seat now because of the timing in his personal life.
“I’m getting to the age where it’s sort of now or never,” McKnight said, adding that he’s worried about the quality of judges who could be appointed to the bench in the future.
He didn’t want to apply for an appointment by the governor because he worries a Democrat would not select somebody with his background as a conservative prosecutor. McKnight initially filed to run for retiring Judge Sidney P. Chapin’s seat, then re-filed for Fielder’s seat after finding out that two candidates were vying for Chapin's spot.
McKnight said he had it on “good authority” that Fielder was planning to retire — something the 69-year-old judge who still routinely runs half-marathons said he won’t consider for at least another six years. He’s planning to serve until he’s about 81, he said.
Fielder, however, has been recently admonished by a state panel.
The Commission on Judicial Performance admonished Fielder for improper conduct in 2015 after he told a court officer he and other judges “would get together and fire” the court executive officer for moving courtroom clerks around.
The situation arose after Judge Cory Woodward’s clerk was asked to move courtrooms. Woodward protested, and Fielder accused administrators of violating court protocol for moving the clerk, something he later acknowledged was “unnecessarily forceful.”
Several days after that incident, Woodward — overcome by guilt, according to Fielder — admitted that he was having a lengthy affair with his court clerk. It ultimately led to a state panel censuring him, and stopping just short of stripping him from his office.
Fielder maintains he knew nothing about Woodward’s infidelity and insisted he immediately report the affair. Woodward ran for re-election in 2016 and lost to Tiffany Organ Bowles. Before that, the last time somebody challenged a sitting judge was 1996.
Fielder defended himself, saying that admonishments aren’t uncommon.
“There’s 1,800 judges in the state and 1,200 have been under investigation. Those are things that are not that uncommon. They’re not generally published and most are private, but that’s just part of our life,” Fielder said.
Meanwhile, McKnight voluntarily told The Californian that he filed for bankruptcy within the last five years when his son was diagnosed with autism.
His wife quit her job to stay home and spend more time with their son, he said. As a result, they couldn’t keep up with the more than $100,000 in student loan debt they had incurred, and their monthly mortgage, so they filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy, McKnight said.
McKnight said the bankruptcy has been discharged.
“My wife and I decided it was the best decision for our family,” McKnight said. “I think it’s important voters at least know about that, and that it comes from me and not somebody else.”