California political heavyweights join effort to oust Stanford rape case judge

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky
A 2011 photo shows Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, who has drawn criticism for sentencing former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to just six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
(Jason Doiy/The Recorder via Associated Press)

What began as a grassroots protest over a six-month jail sentence for a Stanford University student for rape has quickly mushroomed into a political campaign with a single mission: Fire the judge who handed down the sentence.

A team of veteran political consultants joined the effort on Friday to recall Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky. Now, the political action committee of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus has announced it will begin raising campaign cash for the effort.

“It’s quite remarkable,” said Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor who began the recall effort. “It shows the kind of watershed moment that this really is.”


On June 2, Persky sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail and three years’ probation for the 2015 sexual assault of an unconscious woman after a campus party.

Two passersby witnessed the attack and intervened, holding Turner until authorities arrived. A letter to Turner from the woman that was read in court went viral this week, helping fuel a firestorm of criticism over the crime and the sentence. The victim has declined to come forward, speaking mostly through prosecutors in the case.

Persky said at the sentencing hearing that prison would have “a severe impact” on the 20-year-old assailant. The judge has not spoken about the case in public.

Two veteran Democratic political consultants, Joe Trippi and John Shallman, decided on Thursday to join the effort to force a recall election against the judge. Trippi gained national attention as the campaign manager for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s presidential run in 2004.


Members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus have been vocal critics of Persky’s ruling on social media, too, and one of the group’s leaders announced a new fundraising effort on Friday.

“We have resources,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), the vice chairwoman of the caucus. “We have a responsibility to use them.”

We’re going to have a full and fair debate of the issue of criminal sentencing for campus sexual assault.
Michelle Dauber, Stanford law professor leading the effort to recall Judge Aaron Persky

Garcia said she believes the political action committee for the women’s caucus could raise as much as $200,000.

“We were outraged,” said Garcia of the judge’s sentence. “When victims hear things like this, they think the system’s against them.”

Though Persky won a new six-year term on the Santa Clara County bench in Tuesday’s primary election, judges are hardly creatures of the political world. Persky’s name didn’t actually appear on the ballot because he faced no opposition, and a review of county election returns show no other races for the 54-year-old jurist since he was appointed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.

Dauber said she believes it will take about 70,000 signatures of Santa Clara County voters to force a recall election. At that election, voters would be asked whether Persky should be removed from office and then given a list of potential candidates who would replace him.

The timing of the recall effort remains in doubt, in large part because of the calendar. Judges can’t be recalled in either the final six months or the first 90 days of a term in office, which means the actual political campaign is likely to lie dormant until the end of 2016 at the earliest.


Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens)
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens)
(Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press )

The political team that quickly assembled is working pro bono, but campaign cash could help fuel the effort to gather signatures and ultimately run a visible campaign.

Garcia, who led an effort to recall Bell City Council members after the city’s corruption scandal, said that the women’s caucus has been active on several fronts to advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. She said that the legislators are prepared to do whatever they can to help.

“It means raising a lot of money, but it’s something I’m committed to doing,” she said.

Full coverage: Stanford rape case »

The sudden outpouring of support for what began as a small protest has left Dauber scrambling to assess next steps. In particular, the timing of how to use the political system will be key.

Some have suggested mounting a write-in campaign against Persky on Nov. 8, but that could also result in multiple efforts that result in a scattered number of votes against a sitting judge who would possibly prevail.

Dauber said her goal is not to impeach the judge or to claim malfeasance, but rather to use the “democratic apparatus” for a thorough discussion of the core issue in the case.


“We’re going to have a full and fair debate of the issue of criminal sentencing for campus sexual assault,” Dauber said.

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Does a judge belong on the bench if he sentences someone to six months in jail for rape?

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