California makes its judicial elections marginally less awful

Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill requiring judicial candidates in California to appear on the ballot with “actual government job titles” rather than fanciful designations designed to elicit emotional voter reaction.  In recent elections, candidates have sought and received ballot designations like “Child Molestation Prosecutor” and “Gang Murder Prosecutor.” Under the new law, candidates will have to list either their formal job titles (e.g., “City of Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney”) or provide a short, neutral description of their work (e.g., “Attorney at Law”).

The bill had broad bipartisan support, and it is not hard to see why. Allowing candidates to select their own designations may spur the voter reaction needed to win (who doesn’t love a “Gang Murder Prosecutor”?), but badly poisoned the impartiality and legitimacy of California’s elected judiciary. How could any criminal defendant hope for a fair trial before a judge who owed his election to that prosecutorial slogan? Even if the judge was able to transition to a mode of impartial decisionmaker — which many prosecutors have done with great success — who would believe it?

This was, then, an eminently sensible move. But Californians should hardly be complacent. The state’s more than 1500 trial judges are still chosen by popular election, and there is little reason to be confident that merely removing the most egregious designations from the ballot will improve matters much. Over the years, the state’s judicial elections have been poisoned by ethical lapses, the flow of money into campaign coffers, and political dog-whistling.  And there is an alternative: the state uses gubernatorial appointment to fill unexpected vacancies on the trial court (due, for example,  to death, retirement, or promotion), and that process that could be extended to all trial court selection. True, it would take a constitutional amendment, but many states have done just that over the past 70 years.

I am not holding my breath just yet. But until serious judicial election reform comes to the Golden State, Californians are merely editing out the worst excesses of a lousy system.

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