Safeguarding California's judicial election process

In 2008, a Carson-based pastor tried to unseat six Los Angeles County Superior Court judges. He couldn't get anyone to actually run against them, but he began a write-in campaign anyway by gathering the legally required 100 signatures, which forced the registrar of voters to make room for the six incumbents' names on the already crowded ballot. That meant more ballot materials printed at additional taxpayer expense. The pastor, Ronald C. Tan, said he was striking a blow against abortion, gay marriage, evolution — and a lack of Filipino judges.

Last year, a man who was unhappy with a ruling against him in San Diego County Superior Court began a write-in campaign — again, by gathering the required 100 signatures — against every single judge on that court who was up for reelection. If the disgruntled litigant had persisted, even if he failed to actually get any real challengers to run, the names of 30 unopposed judges would have appeared, pointlessly, on the ballot. Registrar Deborah Seiler said that for the first time, her county would have had to present each voter with two ballot cards instead of one to make room for all the names. Taxpayers, again, would have had to foot the bill. Fortunately, the write-in effort was dropped before it got to that point.

The judicial election process in California is carefully crafted to provide a good balance between public oversight and accountability on the one hand and judicial independence on the other. The governor appoints most judges, but when vacancies go unfilled, qualified candidates can run for the job. Whether elected or appointed, judges are subject to recall, just like any other state elected official. At the end of a trial judge's six-year term, challengers can force an election, and the name of the judge who wants to stay in office will appear on the ballot along with the other candidates. If no one files a challenge, the judge is deemed reelected, and his or her name doesn't even go on the ballot. That's a good thing, especially in a county the size of Los Angeles, where a third of the trial bench — between 130 and 150 judges — is up for new terms in every even-numbered year.

But judicial challengers have one more bite of the apple: They can mount write-in campaigns. They get 10 extra days after the filing deadline to target an incumbent judge. All they have to do is gather 100 signatures. The challenger's name won't go on the ballot — it is, after all, a write-in campaign — but the incumbent's name will appear.

Californians should generally resist efforts to narrow their choices on election day, and should be wary of bills that make it harder to oust government officials. But judicial races are an exception. As the Los Angeles and San Diego examples show, it's too easy for someone who isn't running to force elections officials to fill up ballots, at substantial public expense, with the names of judges who aren't even being challenged. The Legislature recently sent Gov. Jerry Brown a bill to modestly raise the bar for judicial (and some other) write-in efforts. He should sign it.

AB 362 by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) would peg the signature requirement for judicial write-in elections in each county to the number of eligible voters in that county. In most counties, the requirement would remain at 100. But more signatures would be needed in larger counties: up to 600 in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and three Northern California counties.

In addition, the bill would require write-in candidates for judge — and for district attorney and sheriff (and several offices elected in other counties but not in Los Angeles: county auditor, county superintendent of schools, treasurer and tax collector) — to declare their eligibility for the office. That makes sense. Why should the county registrar bother expending taxpayers' money to make ballot room for someone not legally eligible to take office?

To be eligible, judicial candidates must have been members of the state bar or served as a judge in California for the 10 years before taking office. A district attorney has to be a state bar member. A sheriff has to have particular law enforcement experience, education or certification.

Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year on the grounds that it would limit the power of Californians to change their government. But that argument is off base. It would instead quite modestly limit a person's ability to hijack the election process, at taxpayer expense, to harass a judge. Judges are and should remain subject to removal by recall and election defeat. They would remain subject to a write-in challenge. But the higher signature requirements may help dissuade people who have no intention or ability to bring forward an actual challenger from misusing the write-in option.

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