Thursday, December 17, 2009
Judicial Council Endorses Ban on Candidates Seeking Party Backing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Judicial Council has approved the 71 recommendations of the Commission for Impartial Courts, including a proposed rule that would ban judicial candidates from seeking support from partisan groups.
“Judicial candidates should be prohibited from seeking or using endorsements from ‘political organizations,’ as defined in the...Code of Judicial Ethics,” the commission said in the report, which was approved Tuesday by the council.
The code, which would have to be amended by the state Supreme Court in order to implement the recommendation, defines a political organization as “a political party, political action committee, or other group, the principal purpose of which is to further the election or appointment of candidates to nonjudicial office.”
The commission acknowledged First Amendment concerns about the proposal, but it emphasized that it would not prevent political organizations from endorsing judicial candidates and that while candidates could not seek or use an endorsement, they would not be barred from “accepting” it, meaning they would not have to publicly disavow the group’s support.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George appointed the 88-member commission two years ago, saying a response was required to developments in other states that the chief justice said were threats to judicial integrity. The commission issued a draft report last spring and subsequently refined its recommendations after receiving public comment.
Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin chaired the commission’s Steering Committee, while Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin headed its task force on Judicial Campaign Finance.
In paring the draft’s 109 recommendations to 71, the commission dropped a contentious proposal to expand the role of the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation to include the evaluation of candidates in contested judicial elections, along with a requirement that those evaluations be published in the official ballot materials.
“This recommendation resulted in a large number of negative comments,” the commission reported. “The most significant objections were based on, among other things, the limited resources available to JNE to evaluate all candidates in a short period of time; the long time required for completion of the thorough JNE process, including appeals, which would greatly increase the time period from filing to election; and the difficulty of implementing such a process in counties of relatively small population.”
The commission did, however, endorse the continuance of the JNE Commission’s role in the appointment process, and recommended mandating an announcement that a judicial nominee has been rated “not qualified” by the JNE Commission at the time of the appointment. Under current law, such announcements are made subsequent to the appointment and solely at the discretion of the commission.
Also approved was a recommendation that judges be required to disclose to litigants and counsel that they have received a contribution from an adversary that meets the state reporting threshold, currently $100, and to recuse themselves—absent waiver—if the contribution is in excess of $1,500.
The latter amount would be subject to adjustment in the future, under the committee proposal. Contributions below that threshold might still require recusal if they raise reasonable doubts about a judge’s impartiality, or would otherwise be grounds for disqualification under current law.
Higher thresholds would apply for the recusal of appellate justices. California Supreme Court justices, for example, would have to step aside if an attorney or litigant contributed to their retention campaigns in an amount equaling or exceeding the maximum contribution to a candidate for governor, currently $20,000.
The commission rejected suggestions that judicial campaigns be publicly financed, saying it saw no need to make such a drastic change in the system at this time. It would, however, ban direct contributions from unions or corporations to judicial campaigns, although such entities could form political action committees that would permit their members or employees to donate.
Other recommendations include:
•Mandatory recusal if a judge has made a statement, other than in a ruling or opinion or during a proceeding, “that a reasonable person would believe commits the judge” to rule a certain way.
•The establishment of unofficial statewide and local committees on fair judicial campaign practices. The Los Angeles County Bar Association already has such a committee.
•Encouraging the State Bar to discipline attorneys who engage in misconduct in their campaigns for judicial office.
•Mandatory electronic filing of judicial candidates’ campaign finance reports, regardless of how much a candidate raises or spends.
•An increase in the number of signatures required to place a judicial recall on the ballot, which would require a state constitutional amendment, and an increase in the number of signatures required to subject an unopposed Superior Court incumbent to challenge by a write-in candidate. The latter change could be made by statute.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company