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Troy Slaten — a current defense attorney and former child actor whose credits include series regular roles on Cagney & Lacey (1981-88) and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (1990-93) — is hoping to swap professions again on March 3, when he’s running to become a judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Slaten, 44, is one of a small coterie of former child actors who’ve entered the legal profession. Jeff Cohen — aka Chunk from The Goonies — is perhaps the most well known, but there’s also Charlie Korsmo, aka Jack Banning in Hook, and two stars of The Wonder Years: Crystal McKellar (Becky Slater) and Josh Saviano (Paul).
When asked if child actors might be drawn to the legal profession by their exposure to an often exploitative industry during their formative years, Slaten demurs. For his part, he credits: a) his studio teachers and parents, for instilling in him a love of learning, or at least a fear of returning to regular school in his hometown of Calabasas, during breaks in filming and not being up to speed; b) an obsession with Law & Order, for steering him toward law school after majoring in English at UCLA.
In addition to his two decades as a litigator, Slaten has spent the last few years serving as a judge pro tem in the county’s massive system, which handles criminal, civil, family, juvenile, small claims, probate, traffic, etc., etc., cases for a population larger than all but a handful of states. Aside from just enjoying the work, Slaten cites a few other reasons why he’s trying to make his temporary role permanent.
The L.A. County bench — like the ranks of judges in general — features a dramatic imbalance between former prosecutors and former defense attorneys (his opponent, Adan Montalban, is an L.A. County deputy district attorney in the Hardcore Gang Unit). Also, despite a nationwide movement “toward funding alternatives to incarceration through treatment and social services,” the current Los Angeles County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, says Slaten, is moving in the opposite direction: “She is increasing prosecutions and not allocating the resources necessary for those types of alternative sentences.” As a judge, Slaten says he will lobby for more funding for alternative courts and diversion programs. “This is what my campaign is about: finding alternatives to incarceration, ending the scourge of mass incarceration, ending the jail turnstile and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.”
In late January, Slaten sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his decision to run, and trying to campaign in a county with 10 million people.
So once a judge is elected, are they assigned to one specific division?
Yes. The presiding judge gets to decide where you go, and it could be anywhere. I could end up doing traffic arraignments in Pomona.
Hey, well, good luck!
(Laughs.) I live in West L.A., so I’d prefer something closer, but I’d be happy to serve wherever I was needed. Most of my experience as an attorney has been in criminal law, and in order to be qualified to run for judge, all you need to do is to have been an attorney for 10 years. And then you’re either elected by the people or appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy.
Does the fact that judicial races in California are nonpartisan make it more of a challenge to campaign? I consider myself an engaged voter, but when you get far down-ballot there’s usually shortcuts I’ll take, like just looking for the (D) or (R).
It’s crazy. And especially because, if you think about a congressional race, like [U.S. House members] Adam Schiff or Brad Sherman, they can maybe even walk their entire district. But in a county-wide election that’s impossible. A lot of people wind up making their decision based on what the person’s name is — what name they like better — and the ballot designation, the three words underneath their name. Mine is gonna say “attorney/legal commentator.” And it was challenged by my opponent. And we had to prove that that was my principal occupation or vocation for the last calendar year.
The law changed with regard to ballot designations a couple years ago. Prosecutors used to be able to put things like “gang homicide prosecutor,” “child molestation prosecutor.” Who would not want to elect a child molestation prosecutor?! So they’re not allowed to do that anymore.
I wonder if people change their names. If your name were, like, “Jack Justicehammer,” look out.
It’s funny that you say that because there is one judicial race in this election where the person did exactly that. It is a retired attorney and his name was Michael Cummins, and he changed his name to “Judge Mike Cummins.”
So I imagine you have to try and press every advantage, and the name recognition from having been an actor —
Well, that’s an advantage for some and it might be a drawback for others! Some people might think, “I don’t want to trust him because he was an actor.”
But in an election where lots of people are coming into the voting booth with zero information on you and your opponent — just your name and three words — all else being equal, I have to think pressing an advantage of any kind as far as name recognition would be the move. What was the turnout in our last election in L.A. County? Like 8 percent? (Note: Turnout for the 2018 primary election was 24 percent of eligible voters. Sorry for being overly cynical.)
Even worse: Of the people that vote in the primary, about 20 percent vote for judges.
So what’s the math? How many votes does it take to win a county judicial election?
I think this may be a high-turnout election because Donald Trump is so polarizing. It’s Super Tuesday, it’s early [on the primary calendar]. And as part of the new VSAP [Voting Solutions for All People, the county’s brand-new voting system that will be rolled out during the primary], they’re putting all the down-ballot races at the top. Board of Supervisors and judges are going at the top, and president is at the bottom. So you’re going to have to move through 30 or 40 screens to get down to president. Historically in a primary it’s been about 500,000 votes to win, but it could be up to a million or more in this race.
So what about going the other route: being appointed by the governor?
That gets very political. Because the governor is going to appoint people that are from his political background, and sometimes it’s people that had donated to the governor, sometimes it’s people that have donated to interests that are important to the governor or just favors being repaid. I’m not saying that at all about [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom. From all accounts, he’s actually been doing a really good job — and he’s not been going just for prosecutors. The Los Angeles County bench is significantly overweighted with prosecutors. I think that the statistic is close to 90 percent of judges are former prosecutors. And for voters, if you’re gonna have a judge decide a case for you, do you want that judge to have been a lifelong prosecutor who has counted as a win getting the maximum sentence they could possibly get for somebody?
And there’s also the progressive prosecutor movement to get people elected as DAs in places like Philadelphia with Larry Krasner —
The San Francisco DA [Chesa Boudin] is a former public defender. And the current [Los Angeles] DA, Jackie Lacey, has some serious challengers in Rachel Rossi and George Gascon, so there’s a reform movement. And unfortunately, the current DA has, while the rest of the country is moving toward criminal justice reform — and this is what my campaign is about: finding alternatives to incarceration, ending the scourge of mass incarceration, ending the jail turnstile and ending the school-to-prison pipeline — it’s not happening in L.A. While the rest of the country is moving toward funding alternatives to incarceration through treatment and social services, she is increasing prosecutions and not allocating the resources necessary for those types of alternative sentences. As a judge, I would want to lobby my fellow judges, who get to decide how the judicial resources are spent. It’s the judges, in conjunction with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, who decide how much money can go toward veterans court, homeless court, women’s reentry court, drug court, mental health court. Because the number one problem in L.A., most would agree, is homeless, and most people are homeless because of mental illness or drug addiction or both. Mental illness is not a crime, and drug addiction is not a crime. Those are problems that can be dealt with, and they are worst dealt with by putting people in jail.
As a law student, I clerked for the DA’s office. This was in the early 2000s and meth was a real big problem. They were charging people with felonies for unusable amounts of drugs. Their philosophy was, if we can see it we can charge it. So if there was a speck of methamphetamine or cocaine, that person could have a felony put on them. And to me that was wrong; I couldn’t in good conscience go into the DA’s office and prosecute those crimes. I prosecuted some cases as a law clerk; I did two misdemeanor jury trials; I did dozens of felony preliminary hearings. And then I went into defense, and I’ve been a defender of the Constitution ever since.
And you never worked as a public defender, correct?
I was never in the public defender’s office. And they are really fighting the good fight. They are overworked, underpaid, they have 400 cases each, and they are really doing the best they can with limited resources. There is a big disparity in workload and in overall fairness because the prosecutors get to decide whether a case is dismissed or if they’re going to plea bargain and what they’re going to charge. My opponent has been in the Hardcore Gang Division. There was a recent story about the LAPD designating people as gang members when they were not. And if you add a gang enhancement onto a charge, that means the potential punishment is increased by 10 or 20 years. So imagine you’re the defendant, and you’re now charged with a crime with a gang enhancement on it, and they’re offering you 16 months [if you plead guilty]. Do you want to risk it? Or do you want to take the 16 months, you’ll be out in 12, and you’ll have the rest of your life back — but you’ll have a strike, you’ll have a felony conviction, you’re not going to be able to get most jobs, credit, housing, student loans, social services, and you’ll have to walk around the rest of your life with that scarlet letter. I heard a judge say this once — it may have been to Lindsay Lohan — where the judge said, “I’m going to put the keys to the jailhouse in your hands. If you do x, y and z, then jail is going to be taken away and forever. But if you don’t, you’re going to be locked up.” That’s compulsory, but it’s giving the person the chance. A judge is in the best position to know whether someone’s a hardened criminal and they need to be taken out of society for a little while and put into a cage — which is one of the most grave decisions that a judge can make — or whether this person just messed up and they need a second chance, or a third chance.
For the last three and a half years, I’ve served as a judge pro tem of the L.A. Superior Court, mostly in traffic but also small claims and other matters. So I’ve actually been doing it, and people are scared to death — even on a traffic ticket where no one’s going to jail. So as a judge I try to be as disarming as I can, reduce the tension, reduce the anxiety. Nobody wants to be there. They’re missing work, they’re not getting paid, they had to arrange for someone to pick up their kids. And some judges are conscious of those things, and other judges are not. So I want to take all the great attributes I’ve seen in judges and I want to be a great PR agent for the entire justice system.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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