Until last week, when California Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Panelli announced he will retire in January, Gov. Pete Wilson had made only one appointment to the high court. Two years ago he chose Ronald M. George, a distinguished jurist with a conservative record. But in naming George, a white, to fill the seat of retiring Justice Allen E. Broussard, an African-American, Wilson left the court without a black or Latino justice for the first time in 14 years. We said then that a high court made up of seven white people did not reflect California’s enormously varied population. Despite George’s strong credentials, we termed his appointment “a small but not insignificant step backwards.”
A GOOD PRECEDENT: In filling Panelli’s seat, Wilson would do well to follow President Clinton’s lead. In appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court, Clinton chose an individual with impeccable judicial qualifications who also brought to the court a range of interests and experiences different from those of most of her colleagues.
We are not arguing that Wilson must appoint a second woman to the court (Justice Joyce L. Kennard is the only sitting female justice). Rather, we urge the governor to make a stronger effort to ensure that the high court and the state’s lower courts reflect the people of California.
In his 154 judicial appointments to date, Gov. Wilson has wisely demonstrated that he is not captive to a particular judicial or political ideology. Many of those he named to the state’s trial and appellate courts have proven themselves to be excellent jurists.
Yet the governor has been rightly criticized for a relative paucity of women and minority appointees for the bench. Of the 154 judges he has named, only 41, or 26%, are women. Wilson has selected only eight Latinos, only seven African-Americans and only six Asians. That means 86% of his judicial appointees have been whites. Most other recent California governors did little better, if any: Only 231, or 15%, of the state’s 1,496 sitting judges are women. Figures for African-American, Latino and Asian judges are not available.
IMAGE OF FAIRNESS: The lack of judicial diversity in this very diverse state has caused problems. For example, last summer then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner challenged the assignment of the Los Angeles Superior Court judge initially chosen to hear the case of the men charged with beating truck driver Reginald Denny in the 1992 riots. Reiner unquestionably had a legal right to challenge Judge Roosevelt F. Dorn. But Dorn was the only African-American and one of a small number of minority judges on the downtown criminal court. Consequently, transferring the case out of his court was likely to mean transferring it to a white judge, and that’s what happened. Reiner’s move heightened suspicions among many about the legal system’s procedural and substantive integrity.
A fair trial does not require that the skin color of the judge match that of the defendant. But in a state where minorities collectively are becoming the majority, a respectable legal system does call for more diversity.