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Another judicial lottery is coming. Are voters too inept to pick the right judges?

Another judicial lottery is coming. Are voters too inept to pick the right judges?
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James B. Pierce was ousted in 2012 in an election challenge by Deputy Dist. Atty. Carol Najera, whowas on the ballot as “violent crimes prosecutor.” (Los Angeles Times)

Of the more than 400 judges sitting on the Los Angeles County Superior Court, there is a very small handful of manifestly bad ones. Some may be presiding over courtrooms because of ill-considered appointments by the governor, but let's be frank -– they're at least as likely to be there because as lawyers they took their case to the voters, dreamed up impressive-sounding but completely unofficial job titles like "gang murder prosecutor," bought their way onto one of those slick, official-looking mailers like the ones that will begin to arrive in our mailboxes in the next couple of weeks, and got elected.

Several years ago, Los Angeles County came very close to seeing a white supremacist elected to the bench. William Johnson was the author of a 1986 book that lays out a plan for revoking the citizenship of all nonwhite Americans. In 2008, he was a candidate in a two-person race for a seat on the Los Angeles County Superior Court, and could easily have won had his racist views not been brought to light by the Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

Voters did indeed remove a well-qualified judge, Dzintra Janavs, in favor of a bagel shop owner who had not practiced law in years. There is a similar race this year, in which wine importer Stepan Baghdassarian is challenging sitting judge James Kaddo.

It's also the case that some of the court's best judges got there by being elected. So how is a voter to separate the good judicial candidates from the bad ones?

It's not an easy task. Voters can (and too often do) pick the names or ballot titles that sound most appealing, the way some people pick lottery numbers. That approach will give them exactly the judges they deserve –  but unfortunately it will also foist those hit-or-miss judges on all of Los Angeles County's 10 million people, including those who seek justice in a lawsuit, a child custody hearing, a rape prosecution, a request for a restraining order, or any of the other proceedings in which judges have enormous power over the lives and property of people who never expected to end up in court.

Or voters can skip the judicial races altogether. It's an understandable option, but a disappointing one. Judges will indeed be elected in each race, and not weighing in means leaving the choice to the voters who are swayed by the campaign mail or the lawn signs.

The better option is to get educated about the job and the candidates, and make a choice. It's a difficult task. Rarely are there candidate forums for judicial races, so there are few chances to compare candidates or ask them questions. There is little news reporting about judges or judicial races, so reliable and evenhanded information is scarce.

Other jurisdictions do things differently. In federal courts, for example, lifetime appointments are made by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Voters do not get a say. The other extreme can be seen in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina, where special interests and political parties vie for control of the judiciary with multimillion-dollar contributions and hard-hitting campaigns.

California has a hybrid system. The governor appoints most judges to fill out the unexpired terms of predecessors who have retired or otherwise left the bench. Then they come up for election by voters to full six-year terms. But if no one files to run against them, they are deemed elected. Their names don't even appear on the ballot.

The only judicial races that voters see are those in which a sitting judge has been challenged or candidates compete for vacant seats that the governor has not gotten around to filling.

Even that is too much for some observers, who note that voters often pick candidates because of ballot titles like "Child molestation prosecutor" for a deputy district attorney.  Surely, they argue, we'd do better with an all-appointed bench.

But states are not the federal government, and there is a difference between confirmation by the U.S. Senate and confirmation by the California Senate, whose members are term-limited and not always of the same stature as their federal counterparts.

California's system may be the best of many less-than-perfect choices.

"The California system isn't perfect but it's better than others," California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye recently told The Times editorial board. "You get to vote whether or not your vote's correct, you're right, wrong, good judgment, bad judgment. Your vote is your highest expression of being able to live free in a country that permits you to express your opinion. So in that regard, it's the best system."

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