How California votes for judges

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Photo Credit: Daniel X O’Neill

(Photo:Daniel X. O’Neil/Flickr)

At some point, many Angelenos will encounter a judge whether it’s traffic court, a child custody case, a lawsuit or even jury duty. Judges wield enormous power. In Los Angeles County alone, there are 400 Superior Court judgeships. This election year, seven of those seats are being contested.

The process of electing a judge is part of California’s hybrid system. If a judge retires or leaves the bench then the governor can appoint a successor. Afterwards, when judges come up for election, voters have a chance to weigh in on the process.

Robert Greene, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times says a third of the bench comes up for election every two years, but, “only those judges who get challenged by attorneys for reelection or those seats that are vacant because the judge is retiring and the governor hasn’t gotten around to appointing a replacement. They’re the ones that end up on the ballot.”

What does it take to be a judge in Los Angeles County and how does one get on the ballot? To qualify, a candidate must be a member of the California state bar, in good standing, for at least ten years. That’s it. “You have to make your case to voters why you are ‘judicial’ however you define that term. You have to demonstrate that you have the demeanor, the integrity and the judgment to serve in that position. But you don’t have to actually have any experience as a judge,” according to Greene.

Convincing voters means campaigning. When you think about traditional campaigns, it might seem odd for a judge to campaign. Greene calls it a difficult balancing act, “a judge is trying to maintain a certain type of decorum. But at the same time, needs to run a campaign. That takes money and means you have to ask for money.”

In addition to money, candidates are vying to catch the voters’ attention on a ballot. The judge being challenged gets designated as incumbent, but what about the challenger? Three little words, that’s all a challenger gets to describe themselves and that’s where it gets interesting according to Greene, “people started with things like ‘homicide prosecutor’ or ‘murder prosecutor’ then they threw in ‘gang murder prosecutor’ which isn’t really an official title but it’s attractive to voters.” Greene says political consultants consider “child molestation prosecutor” the gold standard.

The designation process isn’t without issue. Candidates have sued other candidates over designations claiming they aren’t appropriate or an accurate description. Three little words. It’s not a lot of information to go on and judgeships aren’t covered in the media the way the bigger races are and that’s where it’s up to the voter to do some research.

The LA Times did some legwork on the races and offered their endorsements  in several articles.