District Attorney David Eyster failed Wednesday to follow up on his planned run to unseat a Mendocino County Superior Court judge that he has tangled with since being elected the County’s top prosecutor 13 years ago.
Eyster in recent weeks informed key members of the county’s legal community, other judges, and his staff that he intended to run against incumbent Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan who presides over the Ten-Mile Branch on the Mendocino Coast. But by the 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline for the DA to file a formal notice of intent, he was a no show.
“Today was the final day to file a declaration of intent to run for a judicial post,” said Katrina Bartolomie, the Assessor/Clerk Recorder/Registrar of Voters for Mendocino County.
As a result, Bartolomie said Brennan will automatically be elected to a third six-year term. Fellow Superior Court Judge Carly Dolan is unopposed for a second six-year term on the bench. Because of no opposition, Brennan and Dolan’s names will not appear on the March primary ballot.
Judge Brennan, after being informed by Bartolomie there would be no contest for his seat, said he was gratified by the outpouring of support in recent weeks.
“For the last 17 years it has been my honor and privilege to serve as a judge on the Mendocino County Superior Court. The outpouring of support I have received over the last several weeks has been both gratifying and humbling. My heartfelt thanks go out to my colleagues on the bench, the attorneys who appear in my courtroom, and most of all to the hundreds of people in the community who stepped forward to offer their support. I look forward to continuing to serve the community I am so fortunate to call home,” said Brennan.
Brennan’s colleagues on the bench rallied to his side after learning of Eyster’s intent to challenge him, as did retired judges and a long list of civic leaders.
Bartolomie said as of Wednesday there are nine candidates for three seats up for election in the March primary for the county Board of Supervisors.
The board races promise to be spirited given the state of county finances, a forced consolidation of two independent county financial offices, and the abrupt suspension without pay of County Auditor/Treasurer Chamise Cubbison after Eyster charged her with felony misappropriation of public funds in October.
The backlash to Cubbison’s ouster seems likely to have played a factor in Eyster’s decision not to seek election as a judge. How the current Board of Supervisors managed Cubbison’s suspension without notice, and Eyster’s role in the controversy, has roiled county politics.
On October 13 Eyster filed charges against Cubbison and the County’s former Payroll Manager Paula June ‘PJ’ Kennedy stemming from a board-triggered investigation into an alleged $68,000 in improper pay received by Paula June Kennedy during the Covid pandemic. Cubbison has said she allowed the payments because Kennedy had reached the salary agreement with now retired Auditor Lloyd Weer, who has not been accused.
Eyster’s possible campaign to unseat Brennan was a reality before the public backlash about the Cubbison case. His announced intentions to run for judge sent shockwaves through the county courthouse when insiders first learned of his plan several weeks ago. Contested elections for judges are rare.
Eyster has earned a reputation as a hard-working, pugnacious prosecutor who regularly takes cases to trial along with a stable of deputies. But Eyster also has been tagged as a bully unafraid to use his wide legal discretion enjoyed by District Attorneys to go after critics in and out of the courthouse.
Judge Brennan earned Eyster’s enmity when he publicly questioned from the bench a marijuana restitution program the DA implemented shortly after he took office in 2011. Eyster used a section of the California health and safety code intended to reimburse police for the cost of cleaning up meth labs and pot grows and reshaped it for use in fast-tracking marijuana related prosecutions. It allowed first time offenders to pay fines rather than be criminally prosecuted for operating illegal growing operations, which were widespread then and creating a lengthy court backlog.
Brennan said during a court hearing on one of the program’s first plea agreements, “To put it bluntly, it looks like a criminal defendant charged with serious conduct can simply buy a misdemeanor disposition if he gets caught and has the money set aside to cover for that contingency.”
Critics were harsh about a program that eventually generated $7 million in new revenue for county coffers, and cemented DA’s role as a key player in politics at the county administrative center. The program was nicknamed the “Mendo Shakedown,” labeled extortion, and blamed for creating what appeared to some as an unequal justice system. A federal grand jury took a look at Eyster’s unique program, as did major news media statewide like the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, the furor subsided, and the DA’s controversial program quietly faded after California voters legalized marijuana in 2016.
While legalization quieted courtroom battles over Mendocino County’s infamous underground marijuana culture, Eyster harbored his grudge against Brennan for years after. The DA regularly demeaned the judge internally, and warned the bench that he would exercise his authority to oppose Brennan from presiding over cases at the Ukiah courthouse. In one momentous public showdown, Eyster personally appeared in court and blocked Brennan from hearing a calendar of scheduled hearings.
A few years later Eyster went after Brennan again for his handling of a celebrated animal abuse case. The DA bellowed that the judge’s sentencing was “too lenient” on the defendant, who had pled no contest to shooting a dog known as “Thunder” and leaving it to die in the woods. Thunder survived and returned to health under new care. In 2020 the defendant entered a guilty plea to felony animal cruelty. Brennan sentenced her to unsupervised probation for 36 months, court imposed counseling, and a ban on owning animals during her probation. She also was required to serve 500 hours of community service.
Eyster refused to give up on his efforts to publicly embarrass Brennan. Even after Eyster lost his bid in a state Court of Appeal to overturn the judge’s sentencing, he brashly claimed victory in his failed “Hail Mary” legal challenge. Eyster pledged then to keep the “bright lights” on Brennan.
Eyster was unopposed for a fourth term in 2022 as DA but within months he was embroiled in controversies over his handling of a string of police misconduct cases. In the highest profile case Eyster agreed to a plea deal that dropped felony sex charges against a former Ukiah police sergeant, a move that triggered public protests and widespread news coverage that summer.
Now the DA is at center stage again with his criminal prosecution of elected County Auditor Cubbison.
During his long tenure, Eyster has been challenged by three County Auditors, who have questioned his use of asset forfeiture funds for routine office costs, travel reimbursements, and whether he violated county policies by hosting office parties that he labeled annual “training sessions.”
Citing Eyster’s pending criminal case against Cubbison, the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 17 took the extraordinary step of suspending her without a public hearing and before the accused Auditor had a chance to enter an expected not guilty plea. Two weeks after the fact Cubbison was given the opportunity to present a defense to the board, but her attorney instead appeared with her and ripped county supervisors for violating the elected official’s rights to due process. A legal challenge to the board action is expected.
Attorney Chris Andrian, a noted Sonoma County defense lawyer, at the time told the board Eyster’s case was “very weak,” and appeared more politically based than legal. “We will mount a vigorous defense,” said Andrian.
The Cubbison case and the chaotic state surrounding county finances are certain to play a role in next March’s election for three seats on the Board of Supervisors.
As of Wednesday, there are five candidates to succeed 1st District Supervisor Glenn McCourty who is stepping down after only one term on the board. They are Carrie Shattuck, Adam Gaska, Trevor Mockel, Madeline Cline, and David Goodman.
In the 2nd District, incumbent Maureen Mulheren will be challenged in her re-election bid by newcomer Jacob Brown. The district is Ukiah, the county’s largest population, retail, and government center.
On the Mendocino Coast, Supervisor Dan Gjerde has declared he’s not seeking re-election to his 4th Supervisor District seat. Current Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell has filed to replace Gjerde. Georgina Avila-Gorman is the second candidate to seek election in that district.