Two face off in contested judicial race

San Diego Superior Court Judge Gary Kreep seeks re-election in 2018. Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune

While political campaigns for seats on the Superior Court bench are often low-key affairs, a contest this fall has drawn more attention than usual.

The race pits current San Diego Superior Court Judge Gary Kreep against Deputy District Attorney Matt Brower, a Carmel Valley resident.

Kreep was elected to his position in 2012, and he has generated controversy both before and after becoming a judge. Prior to his election, Kreep, an attorney, was involved with the "birther" movement that challenged President Barack Obama's status as a natural born U.S. citizen.

And in 2017, Kreep received a "severe public censure" from the state Commission on Judicial Performance, which found that he had committed 29 acts of misconduct, which ranged from actions during his 2012 campaign, to alleged improper comments in the courtroom, some relating to the physical appearance or ethnicity of attorneys appearing before him.

The finding by the commission is the highest level of discipline meted out by the panel, short of removal from office.

Kreep also was rated as "lacking qualifications" to serve another term by the San Diego County Bar Association. Brower was rated as "qualified."

In an interview, Kreep noted that a number of allegations made against him with the judicial commission were not upheld, and that others related to comments he had made in an effort to welcome people into his courtroom by greeting them in Spanish.

He conceded that he did commit an offense - resulting in a finding of willful misconduct - which involved comments he made to members of the Public Defender's office after the San Diego City Attorney's office issued a blanket challenge against him, objecting to Kreep handling any of that office's cases.

The challenge was made, he said, "because I did not kowtow to the city attorney's office," Kreep said.

In its August 2017 report, the commission said the censure "is based largely on Judge Kreep's pervasive pattern of misconduct," but noted that most of the violations occurred in his first year on the bench, and evidence suggested he had since "made efforts to modify his judicial style to avoid the type of conduct that led to these proceedings."

Kreep said he believes the bar association rated him as unqualified because he is a Christian, which the organization sees as biased.

Kreep currently handles all of the eviction cases in San Diego County in his courtroom, and he said he deserves another term because he and his staff have worked diligently to reduce a backlog in eviction cases.

"I'm a hard-working judge who treats everyone in my courtroom fairly, and I do my best preserve the constitutional and statutory rights of all parties who appear in my courtroom," Kreep said.

Kreep declined to comment on his opponent, Matt Brower.

"People are going to have to listen to what he says and decide for themselves. I believe in taking the high road and not in attacking people," Kreep said.

Matt Brower
Deputy District Attorney Matt Brower is running for a judge's seat on the Superior Court bench. Courtesy

Brower, who served as an attorney in the Marine Corps, both during active duty and now as a reserve, handles auto theft and insurance fraud cases as a prosecutor in the county District Attorney's Office.

He said he decided to run for judge after Kreep's censure in 2017, and was particularly bothered by the allegations of mistreatment of women and minorities in Kreep's courtroom.

Brower said, "I've always wanted to be a leader in my community," and that running for judge is a natural way for him to achieve that goal, because of his experience as a prosecutor and as a military attorney and hearing officer.

Brower said voters should give strong consideration to the bar association's ratings in the judicial race, since the group rated Kreep as lacking qualifications in both 2012 and this year.

Although the bar did not give Brower its higher ratings of well or exceptionally qualified, he said he is proud of the qualified rating he received, and expects if he is elected judge, his next rating will be higher due to his experience in the role.

Brower said he offers a stark alternative to Kreep.

"I'm committed to treating all people with professionalism and dignity and respect, to removing bias from the courtroom and to restoring ethics to the courtroom," Brower said, adding that he would be honored to receive the votes of his fellow San Diego County residents.