Judicial races are usually tepid affairs, with few public clashes. But prosecutor Matt Harris took off the velvet gloves Monday, jabbing hard at the integrity of a sitting judge he hopes to replace.

In a legal challenge filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, the prosecutor running against Judge Diane Ritchie and another candidate claims Ritchie's ballot statement is deeply misleading and must be fixed before it is mailed to hundreds of thousands of voters.

Judge Mary Arand is set to hear the case March 28.

Ritchie is battling to keep her seat after a story in this newspaper reported she has labored to learn the job in a first term marked by gaffes. Harris and another candidate, defense lawyer Annrae Angel, stepped up to challenge Ritchie in the June 3 primary, the first time in 16 years that a sitting judge has had to fend off challengers.

Ritchie and Harris both declined to comment, citing the judicial canon of ethics, which limits judicial candidates from criticizing each other except in a court challenge like this. Harris lays out his case in a writ filed by his lawyer David R. Sylva. In turn, Ritchie has hired one of the state's best election-law firms, Marin County-based Nielsen Merksamer.

Her political consultant commented briefly Monday.

"It's an easy way to get a cheap headline," Rich Robinson said. "We're pretty confident moving forward."

Arand has the option of siding with Ritchie and leaving the ballot statement as is, or ordering the registrar of voters to remove any wording she agrees violates election law.

The wording of ballot statements is crucial because the information will be mailed out before the June 3 primary to nearly 800,000 voters.

Harris, a deputy district attorney with 22 years of experience, takes issue with three aspects of the statement -- and also claims Ritchie misled voters in her 2008 statement when she ran for her first term.

In her current statement, Ritchie claims she has "presided over thousands of criminal cases, including domestic violence, gang, child abuse, rape and other violent crimes."

However, Ritchie never presided over any felony trials and was relegated by presiding judges to hear mostly procedural matters because of what seems to have been an unusually difficult transition for her to the bench.

In an email to Harris that he submitted to the court, Ritchie defended her statement by noting that she also presided over preliminary hearings, "at least one of which included child rape." At the most, Ritchie would have presided over about 30 preliminary hearings annually in the two years she was in south county.

And the claim of presiding over thousands of violent-crime cases, while arguably misleading under the election code, may be technically true and therefore survive the challenge. That's because "presiding" includes minimal involvement, such as merely scheduling a court date in a case or ordering a prosecutor to turn over documents to the defense.

Harris also tries to link this claim with her contention in her 2008 ballot statement that she "handled more than a thousand cases, including hundreds of bench and jury trials." Ritchie was a prosecutor for only about three years, doing misdemeanor cases, very few of which went to trial. But no one challenged her assertion in 2008.

Ritchie also claimed in her statement that she "settles over one-third of (civil) cases which is higher than any other judge on the bench."

The claim cannot be officially substantiated because the court doesn't keep a record.

In her email to Harris, Ritchie said she keeps her own record, but did not provide it to Harris. Instead, she urged him to "check the court website." However, no such record exists online.

Experts consider this claim on her settlement record to have the best chance of being struck from the statement by the judge.

In his third claim, Harris notes that the elections code requires that a ballot statement discuss only a candidate's personal background and qualifications, without referring in any way to other candidates or their qualifications.

In her statement, Ritchie claims she "has been willing to give more severe sentences based on the law than those requested by the District Attorney."

Harris contends that the claim is unsubstantiated and aimed subtly at making him -- the only member of the District Attorney's Office on the ballot -- look weaker on crime than her.

Ritchie has been tougher in at least one case, making the statement technically true, though some prosecutors complain she hasn't been tough enough in others.

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