Judging the Judges – Nov 2010

judging the judgesJudging the Judges


Here we go again. I just received my “Official Sample Ballot” in the mail. I open it and scan each page. I see the list of candidates running for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, controller, treasurer, and so on. I know, without any doubt who I will be casting my vote for in all of the races except one. Which one?. . .  You guessed it. THE JUDGES!!!!

When I get to the section of the sample ballot and count the number of candidates running, I find 21 names. 20 of these people I know nothing about. Zilch, zero, nil, never remember hearing of them. One, Alan Schneider, spoke at a meeting I attended during the primary season. He then had dinner with a bunch of us after the meeting was over.  To be honest, I almost felt like crying. It just shouldn’t be this hard.

How in the world does the average voter know which candidate will make the best judge? Do they get a chance to have dinner with them? How many voters can go to candidate forums?

Every election cycle, we are asked to vote for judicial candidates few of us have heard of for offices that few of us know very much about. Yet these offices carry tremendous power. Studies have shown that the average voter goes to the polls with little to no information on judicial races. Some skip that portion of the ballot. Others select a candidate on the basis of the candidate’s name — still others use gender or assumed ethnicity to decide.

For the past few years, I have gone to judicial candidate endorsement meetings. In this venue, usually a community center or some other public space, the judicial candidates show up and make a stump speech. The ones I’ve attended give each candidate about a minute to tell the voters why they should vote for him or her and then they take another minute or two for questions. I’ve got to be honest here, I find this process to be a waste of time — for the voter. The candidate, on the other hand, gets an opportunity to get endorsed by the organization they are pitching to. That endorsement is then added to a list of endorsements that will appear on the candidate’s website, mailers, fliers, etc.

The candidates arrive, deliver their stump speeches, wait for the votes to be tallied, listen to see if they have been endorsed, and then leave. The information they present is little more than what is on their website or the other sites that I link to below. Most of the time, not all candidates show up. Some candidates will send a surrogate to speak on their behalf. Still others don’t send anyone. In that case, they are unlikely to get endorsed. To say the process is flawed is an understatement. The candidate with the most energy and the deepest pockets is in a better position to be elected regardless of their qualifications.

To arm the voter with more information, the Los Angeles County Bar Association established a Judicial Election Evaluations Committee whose purpose is to evaluate candidates running for contested judicial elections in Los Angeles County. The Bar Association rates each judicial candidate and makes their rating available to the public on the LA County Bar website. This is worth reviewing before you go to the polls. Their ratings can be found here.

One of the most comprehensive sources of information can be found on the League of Women’s Voters site. This site is user friendly and packed with information. The League of Women Voters site can be found here.

In addition to the two sources I’ve listed above, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party has a voter guide that can be downloaded to your computer. It can be accessed by clicking here.

Superior Court Judges endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party
Office No. 28 ——- Mark K. Ameli
Office No. 117 —— Alan Schneider

The Los Angeles Times wrote a piece on October 1, 2010 covering the judicial race including endorsements.

Tom Hall, a regular contributor to the LA Progressive told me about this site — April Halprin Wayland.  Check it out. She puts a lot of effort into it.

An LA Progressive reader told me about the Metropolitan News Enterprise. This is a daily publication that features articles on law and the courts, government, politics, business and health.

One of my dreams is to make the LA Progressive the “go to” place for progressives needing information on candidates. Please feel free to recommend other sites in the comments section of this article.

— By Sharon Kyle


  1. Tom says

    For once, I find my self agreeing with a Republican Party spokesperson! Wow! Jay, the Republican attorney and sometimes candidate from Pennsylvania rightly wonders why judges are elected.

    Our Federal political system, was designed to provide “checks and balances”. So the short terms of congressmen were a balance against the longer terms of senators (and vice versa) and the powers of the congressional branch balanced the powers of the executive. In this system, Federal judges get lifetime appointments, specifically to help avoid some of the political pressures that might otherwise affect them.

    Historically, states with elected judges have way more judicial corruption than those with appointed judges.

    Beyond those basic concerns, our legal system mirrors our society and has become highly complex as society has grown more complex. Judges get assigned to various specialty courts, like Family Law, Probate Law, Juvenile Law, as well as Criminal or Civil Law. We pour lots (but maybe not enough) tax dollars into educating judges so that they can handle the assignments they get.

    But the individual judge needs to want to be educated. The people who run for judicial office politically are often seeking the office because of political philosophy that tells them they already know all they need to know, and don’t have to be sensitive to new or alternative ideas.

    Just a couple of years ago, a coffee shop owner with a law degree (but who had never practiced law) and an “anglo” sounding name ran against one of the most respected, knowledgeable, and experienced judges on the Los Angeles Superior Court. The coffee shop owner focussed her campaign (shortly after “9/11”) on the fact that the experienced, respected judge had an eastern European sounding name and was thus “untrustworthy” in the new America that the coffee shop owner envisioned.

    Unhappily, the voters agreed. So now we have an openly racist, utterly unskilled, legally inexperienced judge, dispensing her bile against latino and other poor litigants who come before her. Because she ran an openly racist campaign for votes.

    I express no opinions on judicial candidates because I think that the electoral process for judges is fundamentally wrong.

    (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have violated my own rule on occasion, as in last year’s race when a Family Law judge who had started out knowing little about Family Law (she had been a business litigator)but had spent several years aggressively learning and developing superior skills in working with the emotionally charged cases and with the pro per (unrepresented) litigants who make up more than 1/2 of all family law cases, was challenged for reelection by people who knew no Family Law, were clear about not wanting to learn any, and wanted the judicial office only as a sinecure with guaranteed retirement benefits.)

    One of the hilarious hypocrisies of the Tea Bag movement is their automatic support for any judicial candidate who has built a career as a “gang prosecutor” or “violent crime prosecutor”. Such people can put in their 20 with the DA’s office, retire on a pension, then go back on the tax rolls for a judicial salary (eventually earning a second pension).

    The joke is on the Tea Baggers though. Many career prosecutors have deep shame at the way the system routinely convicts the innocent, and encourages prosecutors to break the law by giving them promotion points based on conviction rates, rather than for actually solving complex crimes. So when they get on the bench, campaigning on their prosecuting history, an interesting percentage of them develop a sense of responsibility and actual justice and start being neutral and honest, rather than prosecution oriented.

    That’s what happened, for example, with very conservative Earl Warren. When he got onto the Supreme Court, he understood that he had the luxury of never campaigning again. So he was able to look at actual Constitutional and legal values, and moral right and wrong. The decisions that came out of his Court set a world example for real justice and decency.

    Which is why he is still hated by Republicans everywhere.

  2. says

    As a sometime trial juror, I have found it taxing enough to make the right call in a single decision on which I spend hours seriously deliberating with my peers after being equipped with considerable information and evidence.

    Yet, as a voter – whether for a judgeship or other office – I am expected to make a far more sophisticated decision in minimum time, namely to decide who will overall make the best of many many future decisions.

    The expectation is idiotic, even in the case where I do my best to be serious and well-informed. It is multiply idiotic when the choice is by mass vote in which the bulk of voters have no time to become informed or to deliberate.

    It’s way past time for progressive thinking to recognize that public decision-making should transit from the mass election model to the jury model.

    A decision should employ reasoned procedure – deliberation based on rationale, based on information and evidence – rather than mass popularity and whimsical preference voting.

    Meaningful and reasonable democracy does not equate to the popular but airhead mass election model. It would better be realized by enabling each adult person – of those who so wish – to have occasional duty on a team (‘jury’) that seriously deliberates and decides one or a few public issues which the person finds of special concern.

  3. Jay Levenberg,Esq. says

    Why judges are elected is beyond me. The average voter doesn’t know anything about them. Party people support those that have supported the party. It tells you nothing about their judicial philosophy or how they would approach an issue on the court. However, here’s a tip from a lawyer that looks at such candidates. First, see where they went to undergraduate and Law School. Most of the voter’s guides have that much. If they went to a top-rate law school, it’s a leg up in my opinion but it should not disqualify a candidate either if she when to a second tier school. Next, for example, if you are tough on crime, look to see if they served as a District Attorney or worked in the District Attorney’s office. If you are worried about how they treat poor people then see if they worked for legal aid or did a lot of pro-bono work. Their party affiliations should be the last thing you look at if all else fails. However, be careful. A judge can really make a big difference. Just ask President Eisenhower after he appointed Earl Warren to the US Supreme Court. He called it the “most damn fool thing he did” while he was President. With these judges there are,many times, unintended consequences. They certainly should not have a political agenda. We see what happened to a Supreme Court Justice named Bird many years ago. She refused to support capital punishment when it was the law. Such judges should not be on the bench. They are supposed to follow the law, even if they don’t like it.

  4. says

    I vote absentee so I get to sit down with a cuppa, my ballot and my computer. It has made all the difference — at least with the sitting judges. Their previous opinions are a matter of public record. And I’ve used all the sites mentioned here. They’ve been no end of helpful.

    With the newbies, though, I’m as much in the dark as I ever was. Their personal websites rarely let you know which side of what issue they are likely to come down on. All I can do is vote them out later if I don’t like what I see once they’ve been sworn in.

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