Midterms 2018: How do voters decide on judges?

Nov 6, 2018

Depending on where voters are registered, there are a lot of candidates in one category on the November 2018 ballot: judicial. But unlike other offices, measures and propositions in this election, there are no judicial campaigns vying for votes. 

Voters who live in and between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo counties on the California coast are in the 2nd District for the Court of Appeal. There are 17 of those judges on the ballot, plus two California Supreme Court Justices. That’s a total of 19 judges to decide on this year.

“I don't know [anything] about the judges,” San Luis Obispo County resident Pam Orth said. “I didn’t even answer that because I have no idea so I left that [section] blank.”

Orth said she wasn’t comfortable voting for the judges because she hadn’t heard about them in the newspaper or on the radio.

“If you haven’t heard anything about a justice, if their name doesn’t ring a bell when you see it on a ballot, that’s a good sign,” David Carrillo said. He’s executive director of the California Constitution Center at UC. Berkeley. “It means that they are quietly doing the job, going about the business of doing justice. With no drama.”

Carrillo said judges are rarely involved in any controversy in California. This year was an exception, when Santa Clara County voters recalled Superior Judge Aaron Persky in the primary election, two years after Persky handed down a 6-month sentence to a Stanford swimmer in a high-profile sexual assault case.

“That’s the only time a judge has been recalled in 80-some-odd years,” Carrillo said. 

In 1986, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin in 1986 were voted off the bench in that year's retention election. According to Ballotpedia, retention elections, like the current ballot, are periodically held for voters have a say in whether a judge stays on the bench after being appointed by the governor. A recall election is a separate process.

When looking at the justices on the ballot, Carillo said it’s important to understand the difference between judicial retention elections and contested political contests. Retention elections are uncontested and non-nonpartisan.

“I think the recent [Brett Kavanaugh] Supreme Court hearings seemed to many of us to be very partisan and very political and that is unfortunate,” said Judith McConnell, a justice on the Fourth Appellate Court District in San Diego since 2001. “It gives people the impression that judges make their decisions based only on their party background. But in California, in the state court system, we’ve been very successful at maintaining a non-partisan and non-political judiciary.”

McConnell, who is not up for retention, has been an advocate for improving transparency in California’s court system. She said California already has a thorough vetting process for becoming a state judge. She agreed with Carrillo that not being familiar with judges isn’t a bad thing.

“If you heard of [the justices on the ballot] then you might want to follow up and find out what you’ve heard of them and what the source of that information is,” McConnell said.

It may take some hunting, but voters can read the published and unpublished judicial written opinions on the California Courts website. And there is also the Informed Voters —Fair Judges project from the National Association of Women Judges. It aims to provide resources for voters about keeping the court system non-partisan.