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Why Does California Elect Local Judges?

Published on Saturday, February 24, 2024 | 5:35 am
 

When you’re voting for a state legislator or a state officer like the governor, you can evaluate them based on their voting record, policy positions and campaign websites. But finding information on local judges can be trickier.

California’s method of selecting judges depends on the court level: For the higher level state Supreme Court and appeals courts, the governor appoints judges, sometimes based on the recommendation of a State Bar commission. They must be confirmed with a vote in the next general election, and run for re-election after their first term. 

But for trial courts — the Superior Court judges that citizens are most likely to interact with, voters directly decide who takes the bench for their county. These judges serve six-year terms and rule in both criminal and civil cases on issues ranging from traffic violations to divorces. There are some special circumstances that apply to voting for superior court judges:

  • These races happen only in even-numbered years;
  • If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the primary, they are declared the winner and there is no runoff in November;
  • If an incumbent judge is running unopposed, their name will not appear on the ballot;
  • If there’s a vacancy, the governor appoints someone — which is how most trial court judges reach the bench.

It’s a complicated system that dates back to California’s early years. The benefit of any official being elected is that voters can recall the official if they fail to do their duty.

Even though judicial races are nonpartisan, electing judges doesn’t entirely remove political influence. The candidates can receive campaign contributions, including from lawyers they deal with in court, as retired judge and author LaDoris Hazzard Cordell told KQED.

That’s concerning to Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of Common Cause California, an advocacy group that focuses on fair elections and representation: “Our judges are supposed to be above the fray of politics and totally unbiased in their decision-making,” he wrote in an email. “Whether or not that’s actually true, it certainly does not help public perception of the judiciary to force our judges to raise special interest dollars, make campaign promises, and so forth.”

He added that even very engaged voters struggle to find information on these contests.

Lee Zeldin, 79, considers herself one of those voters. The West Los Angeles resident has been avidly trying to gather information on local judges and asked CalMatters for more information.

“The judges that have a lot of power now started somewhere, at some time,” she said, citing U.S. Supreme Court justices. “It’s very frustrating because it’s the early offices — these are the offices where they’ll get through the net.”

And the role of state courts is even more apparent, especially after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022 that overturned Roe v. Wade and shifted abortion protections from the federal government to the states, or decisions on redistricting, according to research by the Brennan Center for Justice.

But Zeldin has struggled to find more than basic information.

She’s not alone. Gabriela Vázquez, deputy director for La Defensa, an advocacy group that aims to reduce mass incarceration in Los Angeles County, joked that she thought she was doing her job poorly when she was first assigned to research local judicial candidates.

“I had to come back and say, you know, I’m not finding stuff, maybe I’m not looking correctly,” she said.

But Vázquez learned that trial court candidates often weren’t campaigning as much as other office-seekers. Instead, most would just pay to be added to slate mailers — flyers sent to voters, often from a political or advocacy group, with a list of candidate recommendations. 

La Defensa publishes a voter guide to empower voters to have a say in who’s on the bench — including more diverse judges.

“At the end of the day, we know that diversity is about interpretation,” said Titilayo Rasaki, La Defensa’s policy and campaigns strategist. “It’s about how it is that you see everyday people, how it is that you bring to bear your personal experiences, your lived experiences, your legal training, your career, including whether or not you’ve used your career to serve the public interest.”

There are some other options for learning more about local judicial candidates.

  • Your county’s bar association, especially if it publishes ratings. A committee evaluates candidates on their past cases, disciplinary issues, and they interview 75 professional references. They rate candidates, on a nonpartisan basis, as exceptionally well qualified, well qualified, qualified or not qualified. If your local bar association doesn’t publish this report, you can look up some of that information on the State Bar Association’s website: where the candidate went to law school, whether their law license is active and, importantly, if the State Bar has taken any disciplinary action against them.
  • Your county’s news sources. For example, in Southern California, LAist has voter guides for judges running in Los Angeles County and Orange County. You can also look to the Los Angeles Times editorial board’s endorsements. In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle includes superior court judges in its voter guide and its editorial board’s endorsements.
  • The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group focused on voter engagement, runs Vote411.org. Volunteers statewide work to have candidates fill out questionnaires. The league’s local chapters also host forums, sometimes in partnership with the local bar association.
  • Advocacy groups or political groups. Groups you trust or align with might also publish guides or mailers.
  • Candidate websites, if they have one. But for a more complete picture, you’d need to vet the information across other sources. Websites will likely include endorsements they’ve collected, which helps signal their values or priorities.
  • Ballotpedia. You can see if they’ve run for office in the past by searching their name. If they’ve filled out Ballotpedia’s candidate questionnaire, more information might be available.
  • County elections office websites: If you want to see how much money a candidate has raised and from whom you can check county elections office websites, where they’re required to file disclosure forms.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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