Judge William McLafferty, who very much embodied the role of judge with his large frame, somber voice, even disposition, and perennial bow tie, died on Friday. He was reportedly 70. McLafferty, who first took the bench in 1997, had been ill for several weeks and had been hospitalized at Cottage Hospital, reportedly for problems with his one remaining lung. McLafferty had existed with just one lung for several decades, perhaps setting a medical record for one-lunged longevity.
With McLafferty’s death, prospective judicial candidates now have an open seat for which to run, something that rarely occurs. That election will take place this June. A number of other judges’ terms come due this June as well, but the power of the incumbency in judicial races is all but omnipotent. Beyond that, there are at least two other vacancies on the Santa Barbara bench as well.
Early on, McLafferty, a civil attorney by professional background — he worked for the law firm of Archibald and Spray — heard criminal cases. But he moved on to civil cases, where he reportedly relished presiding over complex litigation. Most recently, he presided over supervisorial candidate Steve Pappas’s challenge of Doreen Farr’s victory last November for 3rd District Supervisor. Pappas lost by 809 votes and was attempting to disqualify many ballots cast in Farr’s favor by making sweeping allegations of voter fraud. When Pappas’s attorney failed to present any evidence of such fraud, McLafferty called him out, and ruled in favor of Farr.
Likewise, McLafferty ruled in the matter of Cruzito Cruz, a candidate for the Santa Barbara City Council in last November’s election. Initially, city election officials ruled that Cruz had failed to turn in the requisite number of signatures from registered city voters to qualify for the ballot. But Cruz, acting as his own attorney, challenged City Hall in McLafferty’s courtroom and prevailed. Although Cruz didn’t come close to victory in the actual election, his court victory had a lot of resonance in the world of local politics. Council member Iya Falcone, then running for mayor, had also been disqualified from the ballot for lack of signatures on her petition, and she chose not to challenge the city’s determination, based, in part, on the prevailing wisdom that such challenges could not win. While the facts in Cruz’s case were different than Falcone’s, they suggest that the outcome (had Falcone fought back) would not have been as pre-ordained as the experts suggested. Falcone disqualification certainly helped the mayoral campaign of then-councilmember Helene Schneider.
In addition, McLafferty also presided over the probate and conservatorship calendar, a prickly case load involving the mental competence of senior citizens and the disposition of their wealth by those assigned to care for them. Last year, there were a spate of controversies surrounding conservatorship cases, and McLafferty became the subject of criticism from a group claiming that the court was appointing conservators when it needn’t and shouldn’t. This group circulated a petition to have McLafferty recalled, but their efforts ultimately went nowhere.
McLafferty served as presiding judge in 2007 and 2008, during which time he pushed hard to have civil cases diverted away from the judges handling the civil case load and given instead to mediators and arbitrators to handle outside the courtroom.