The Edmond Sun


May 14, 2014

Why voters shouldn’t be electing judges

LOS ANGELES — Do you know which judicial candidates you are voting for in the next election? Neither do I. And I teach election law.

It matters who serves as judges. They preside over state civil and criminal cases. Whether it is a murder trial or a divorce case, judges make hundreds of important decisions each day.

In June, there are 26 candidates running for 12 contested judicial seats (and three running unopposed in open seats) in Los Angeles County. So how do I decide whom to vote for?

I do my research. I read the candidate statements in the voter guide. But that gets me only so far. Candidates only get to use three words for their job title.

I look at the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s judicial evaluations page, which rates candidates as “exceptionally well qualified,” “well qualified,” “qualified” and “not qualified.” This can be a handy resource, but it isn’t particularly helpful when all candidates in a race have the same rating, which happened in five of the 12 contested races this cycle. The group does not give reasons why candidates receive a certain rating.

I also look to newspaper endorsements and information provided by nonprofit groups such as the League of Women Voters.

But I still wonder whether I’m sufficiently informed. And how many of us are willing to do even that much research?

What happens when voters lack meaningful information about candidates? We tend to vote based on factors that have little or no bearing on a candidate’s qualifications. For example, there have been instances of qualified sitting judges with foreign-sounding last names being defeated by less-qualified or unqualified challengers with Anglo-Saxon-sounding names. Of course no one can definitively say that’s why those candidates lost, but that’s the inference.

There is more than just an informational problem here. It is inherently knotty to ask judges and would-be judges to take part in political campaigns. Judges should be making decisions by applying the law to the facts. Sometimes these decisions will be unpopular. That is often as it should be. Judges apply many laws meant to protect the rights of the minority, not the majority. Judges should not have to consider how their decisions would play in the next election — with voters or potential donors.

And speaking of donors, who is likely to make campaign contributions in judicial elections? Typically, lawyers — people who know the candidates and may appear before that judge. It is problematic for judicial candidates to ask for and receive money from those who may have cases before them in the future. A 2013 report by the Brennan Center, the National Institute on Money in State Politics and Justice at Stake detailed the pitfalls of such a system.

Some may say that this system is similar to the one for political candidates, but it is not. Members of the legislative and executive branches rarely make decisions on their own. They must convince colleagues. Judges must convince only themselves.

We do not hold judicial elections at the federal level. Instead, the president appoints and the Senate confirms federal trial and appellate judges.

For state judges in California, we have a hybrid system. The governor has the power to appoint judges to fill vacant seats, but we hold elections as well. Most trial court judges first obtain their positions via the appointment process, and incumbent judges generally are not challenged. In the June elections, 150 of 151 incumbent judges in L.A. County are running unopposed. Does this undercut some of the problems related to judicial elections? Sure. But throughout a judge’s term, there remains the possibility that he or she will be challenged.

In California, Supreme Court judges and appellate judges are appointed by the governor and must be confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. This panel is composed of the attorney general, the chief justice and a senior presiding justice of the state Court of Appeal.

Appellate judges must be approved by the voters at the next general election after their appointment, and stand for retention elections at the end of their terms. These are uncontested elections in which the voters decide only whether a judge gets to remain in his or her seat. Appellate judges serve 12-year terms (unless they are serving out the remainder of a vacated term).

Trial court judges serve six-year terms. For these positions, any attorney who meets the constitutional requirements can file to run for an open seat or to contest a sitting judge.

For decades, the Legislature has also required that the governor request an investigation of all potential appointees by the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. The commission’s recommendations are nonbinding but persuasive.

Hence, we already have a strong model for the type of system we should adopt for all state judges. But instead of standing for retention elections in the case of appellate judges, or regular elections in the case of trial court judges, all judgeships could originally be filled by gubernatorial appointment, followed by potential reappointment by the governor, with approval by the Commission on Judicial Appointments.

Given the typical voter’s lack of information and the innate problems with judicial elections, we should move to a model that eliminates judicial elections. This is not a reflection on the qualifications of those running for a seat on the bench. Many of the candidates may turn out to be wonderful judges. But voters should not be the ones making that decision. I cast my ballot against judicial elections.

JESSICA A. LEVINSON, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles, is the vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She blogs at She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Text Only
  • Film critic Turan produces book

    Kenneth Turan, who is the film critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” has written a book “Not to be Missed, Fifty-Four Favorites from a Life Time of Film.” His list of movies span the gamut from the beginnings of filmmaking through the present day.
    There are some surprising omissions on his list. While he includes two films, “A Touch of Evil” and Chimes at Midnight” made by Orson Welles, and one, “The Third Man,” that Welles starred in but did not direct. He did not however, include “Citizen Kane,” that was the first movie Welles made, that is  often cited by both film critics and historians as a favorite film.

    July 28, 2014

  • Logan County’s disputed zone

    Watchers of “Star Trek” may recall the episode from the original series entitled, “Day of the Dove.” In this episode, Captain Kirk and his crew are forced by a series of circumstances into a confrontation with the Klingons. The conflict eventually resolves after Kirk realizes that the circumstances have been intentionally designed by an alien force which feeds off negative emotions, especially fear and anger. Kirk and his crew communicate this fact to the Klingons and the conflict subsides. No longer feeding upon confrontation, the alien force is weakened and successfully driven away.

    July 28, 2014

  • Russell leads in Sun poll

    Polling results of an unscientific poll at show that Steve Russell, GOP candidate for the 5th District congressional seat, is in the lead with 57 percent of the vote ahead of the Aug. 26 runoff election. Thirty readers participated in the online poll.

    July 28, 2014

  • Healthier and Wealthier? Not in Oklahoma

    Increased copays, decreased coverage, diminished health care access, reduced provider budgets and increased frustration are all the outcomes of the Legislature’s 2014 health care funding decisions. Unlike some years in the past when a languishing state economy forced legislators into making cuts, the undesirable outcomes this year could easily have been avoided.

    July 26, 2014

  • Medicaid reform a necessity

    Historically, education spending by the state of Oklahoma has been the largest budget item. This is no longer the case. In recent years, the state of Oklahoma spends more on Medicaid (operated by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority) than common education and higher education combined, according to the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

    July 25, 2014

  • Remembering lessons from 1974

    This week marks the 40th anniversary of an important milestone in America’s constitutional history. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 to order the Nixon White House to turn over audiotapes that would prove the president and his close aides were guilty of criminal violations. This ruling established with crystal clarity that the executive branch could not hide behind the shield of executive privilege to protect itself from the consequences of illegal behavior. It was a triumph for the continued vitality of our constitutional form of government.

    July 25, 2014

  • RedBlueAmerica: Is parenting being criminalized in America?

    Debra Harrell was arrested recently after the McDonald’s employee let her daughter spend the day playing in a nearby park while she worked her shift. The South Carolina woman says her daughter had a cell phone in case of danger, and critics say that children once were given the independence to spend a few unsupervised hours in a park.
    Is it a crime to parent “free-range” kids? Does Harrell deserve her problems? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

    July 24, 2014

  • Technology that will stimulate journalism’s future is now here

    To say technology has changed the newspaper media industry is understating the obvious. While much discussion focuses on how we read the news, technology is changing the way we report the news. The image of a reporter showing up to a scene with a pen and a pad is iconic but lost to the vestiges of time.
    I am asked frequently about the future of newspapers and, in particular, what does a successful future look like. For journalists, to be successful is to command multiple technologies and share news with readers in new and exciting ways.

    July 23, 2014

  • New Orleans features its own “Running of the Bulls”

    On July12, the streets of the Warehouse District of New Orleans were filled with thousands of young men who were seeking to avoid being hit with plastic bats wielded by women on roller skates as part of the annual “Running of the Bulls” that takes place in New Orleans.
    The event is based on the “Running of the Bulls” that occurs in Pamplona, Spain, that is  part of an annual occurrence in which a group of bulls rampage through the streets of Pamplona while men run from them to avoid being gored by their sharp horns. That event was introduced to the English-speaking world by Ernest Hemingway, who included scenes from it in his critically acclaimed 1926 novel “The Sun also Rises.”

    July 22, 2014

  • OTHER VIEW: Newsday: Lapses on deadly diseases demand explanation

    When we heard that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had created a potentially lethal safety risk by improperly sending deadly pathogens — like anthrax — to other laboratories around the country, our first reaction was disbelief.

    July 22, 2014


The runoff race for the 5th District congressional seat is set for Aug. 26. If the voting were today, which candidate would you support?

Al McAffrey
Tom Guild
     View Results