Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Task Force Members Score Competitive Elections for Judges
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Several members of a judicial task force suggested yesterday that the time has come for California to find a new way of selecting and retaining trial judges.
The system of direct elections “gave me an opportunity” to become a judge, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis acknowledged. “But I do think it’s a sleazy process.”
Dumanis made the comment in Burbank during a meeting of the Judicial Council Task Force on Judicial Selection and Retention. The task force is part of the
Statewide Commission for Impartial Courts, which was appointed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George last September.
Dumanis is one of three task force members who came to the bench by winning election to open seats. She won open seats on both the San Diego Municipal Court and the San Diego Superior Court before being elected district attorney in 2002.
The task force chair is Third District Court of Appeal Justice Ronald Robie, who won an open seat on the Sacramento Superior Court in 1980 and was elevated to the Court of Appeal 19 years later. Other members include Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Terry Friedman—who won an open seat in 1994—and David Wesley, who survived an election challenge in 2004.
Robie and Friedman both said they disliked the process.
Friedman, a member of the state Assembly at the time, agreed with Dumanis and others that elections give candidates who could not hope for a gubernatorial appointment the chance to serve. In his own case, he pointed out, it was highly unlikely that a Republican governor would have named a Democratic elected official to the bench.
But although he was “lucky” enough to prevail, Friedman said, “it was a terrible process.” He commented that his opponent—Valley attorney John Moriarity—“ran as if it were a legislative office.”
Friedman offered no details yesterday, but his runoff contest with Moriarity was the most expensive judicial contest in county history to that point. Moriarity criticized Friedman for his liberal politics and membership in the ACLU, and Friedman, while not responding in kind, outspent his opponent, in part by raising money through transfers from Democratic candidates and donations by groups that had supported his legislative campaigns but usually did not involve themselves in judicial races.
Friedman said yesterday that at the time, he feared he would be defeated because he “chose not to respond politically” to the attacks.
Earlier in the day, state courts Administrative Director William Vickrey made a presentation to the task force based on the system used in Utah, where Vickrey worked before taking up his current post.
In Utah, he explained, judges—both trial and appellate—are appointed by the governor, with the approval of the state Senate, from a list of three to seven candidates nominated by a commission. They then must seek retention by the voters, but prior to the retention election, an evaluation is conducted by the state Judicial Council.
The evaluation includes an independently administered survey of lawyers who have appeared before the judge and are asked to rate his or her performance in 14 categories. In the case of judges who regularly conduct jury trials, jurors are surveyed as well.
In addition to the survey results, a judge’s participation in judicial education, promptness in deciding cases, and physical and mental fitness are figured into the evaluation, and the results are published in the official ballot pamphlet when the judge faces retention.
The pamphlet also includes an explanation of the system of judicial appointment and retention.
The advantages of the system, Vickrey said, are that it keeps partisanship out of the process, while giving voters information that they can use to come to a reasoned decision.
The model would have to be modified, he acknowledged, for use in California, which has about 10 times as many judicial officers.
One option discussed by the task force was “triggered retention”—a system in which the Judicial Council or some similar body would evaluate judges and determine whether they merited retention. If a candidate failed to obtain the required amount of support within the evaluating body, whether a simple majority or more, the judge would have to take his or her case to the voters.
That and other options for retention elections are to be studied by a smaller group of task force members named yesterday. The group will be chaired by Court of Appeal Justice Walter Croskey of this district’s Div. Three.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company