The last time Santa Clara County voters had a choice between re-electing a sitting judge or opting for new blood was 15 years ago in a race so tame even many in the legal world have forgotten it.

The candidates barely spent any money. The challenger made only a few negative comments about the judge's temper. The incumbent won by a landslide.

Expect a different scenario in the upcoming race in June between Superior Court Judge Diane Ritchie and two challengers, the first match of its kind since 1998. While the odds are the incumbent will win, the faceoff promises to be more spirited -- and way more costly.

In 1998, Judge Gregory Ward and prosecutor Richard Titus spent no more than $2,000 total.

Ritchie alone is prepared to spend up to $250,000 to defeat prosecutor Matt Harris and defense attorney Annrae Angel in an effort to capture more than 50 percent of the vote and thus avoid a November runoff, her consultant said.

"She will be funding the campaign herself and will be in a position to do so,'' said consultant Rich Robinson, adding that Ritchie feels it would be inappropriate to solicit contributions.

The other two candidates have no such compunction.

"I plan to raise money and run a full campaign,'' said Harris, a veteran deputy district attorney.

Less than a week after deciding to run, he has picked up endorsements from former District Attorney George Kennedy and recently retired Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery. Harris said he is taking three days off this week to work on "logistics.''


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Angel, whose husband, Keith Sugar, is a former Santa Cruz city councilman, also vowed to give Ritchie a run for her money.

"I can assure you that we will do what we need to do to reach out effectively to our constituency and the community,'' including hiring a campaign manager, Angel said.

Ritchie finds herself in the rare position of having to fight for her seat, unlike 26 other judges who are also up for re-election but haven't drawn a single challenger.

Despite an unusual amount of training and mentoring, Ritchie's first term has been marked by a string of odd incidents. In one case, Ritchie asked a landlord to serve as a translator for a tenant who was complaining about substandard conditions. In another, she publicly asked a former client appearing before her on petty theft charges for his phone number so they could meet socially.

"Nothing she has done rises to the level of illegality,'' said Robinson, himself a lawyer. "All judges makes mistakes. If you sat in the courtroom of any judge, you'd be amazed at what goes on.''

Ritchie, who has defended her performance, said in an email said she is looking forward to the campaign.

"I'm glad voters will get to see my ability as a judge," she said, "and I'm confident that they will choose me again.''

Five years ago, Ritchie confounded expectations, first by winning a hotly contested primary that pitted her -- the sole woman running -- against three prosecutors and a Superior Court commissioner. She then went on to win the $178,789-a-year job of judge handily, even though her opponent in the runoff, then-prosecutor Lane Liroff, was endorsed by the district attorney, sheriff and more than 60 local judges. Ritchie, a former attorney for the California School Employees Association, had labor support and is seeking it again.

But this time, there's another woman in the race, which may split the female vote.

"If other candidates run aggressive campaigns, she'll be forced into a runoff,'' said Harvey Englander, Los Angeles political consultant who has run many judicial campaigns.

But there are limits on how aggressive the candidates are likely to be.

The California Code of Judicial Ethics, which applies to the challengers as well, puts a tight rein on what candidates can say about their opponents.

The Santa Clara County Bar Association goes even further. To be considered for an endorsement by the powerful group, for example, candidates must sign a pledge agreeing to submit any literature or ad that mentions an opponent to that opponent three days in advance. A special commission considers any complaints that arise.

"The biggest problem I had 15 years ago,'' said Titus, the prosecutor who challenged Ward, "is you are so constrained by the canons of judicial ethics that you can't say the other guy is crummy.''

But stringent as the rules are, some people still play hardball in judicial races.

Ward said he got an anonymous letter in the mail during the 1998 campaign claiming that Titus was a transvestite who would party every weekend in a famous San Francisco nightclub called Finocchio's. Enclosed was a photo of a man dressed in drag whom the letter writer claimed was Titus.

"My comment was: If this is Mr. Titus, it has nothing to do with the campaign,'' said Ward, who never circulated the picture, damaging as it might have been at the time to Titus' image as a tough prosecutor.

Times have changed, and Titus, now 68 and retired from the District Attorney's Office, proudly performs every month at the Infusion Lounge in San Francisco in a cabaret of female impersonators called Faux Girls. His stage name is "Victoria's Secret,'' or Vicki for short.

Even though Ward pounded him in 1998 election -- 66 percent to 34 percent -- Titus is still glad he ran.

He claims, "Ward was a better judge after that.''

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport