It’s a lamentable fact of political life that winning an election for superior court judge in California often depends on what job description the candidate chooses to put on the ballot.
The “ballot designation” goes right under the candidate’s name, allowing each contender three little words to squeeze in as much attention-grabbing and persuasive information as the law may permit. So in many cases a deputy district attorney can call himself or herself a “violent crimes prosecutor,” or perhaps a “gang crime prosecutor” in hopes that voters will be impressed by such tough-on-crime credentials.
The political gold standard may be “child molestation prosecutor.” If you can get away with that one you’re a pretty good bet to land a spot in a run-off or win the race outright.
That’s a sorry comment on how voters decide among judicial candidates. Sorrier still is the fact that so many candidates for a job in which truth is paramount push the truth and the law to the limit, and sometimes beyond, by using ballot designations that obscure rather than clarify their actual occupations. If you prosecuted mostly petty theft cases but assisted in one misdemeanor spousal assault case last year, for example, should you be allowed to call yourself a “domestic violence prosecutor”? If you’re an insurance lawyer but also teach a law class for an hour once each week, can you be a “law professor”? If you run a restaurant but you also have a law license and defended a cousin accused of prostitution last year, can you call yourself a “sex trafficking lawyer”? Perhaps — if the registrar-recorder is in a good mood and none of your opponents challenge you in court.
For too many judicial candidates, ballot designations have become an invitation to deceive. Sen. Benjamin Allen (D-Santa Monica), has a worthy bill that would help end such gamesmanship by more strictly limiting what candidates can call themselves. A candidate couldn’t use designations like “lawyer” or “attorney” unless they spent at least half their time in that profession in the previous year. A government lawyer would be limited to using the actual job title, such as “deputy district attorney.”
Of course, if the real point is to give voters useful as well as accurate information, perhaps it would be better to scrap ballot designations altogether and instead offer links to State Bar discipline records, performance reviews, Yelp-like client comments or video of candidate forums.
But let’s not get carried away, and let’s not get ahead of ourselves. SB 235 is a smart step forward. It deserves support.