Stanford rape case exposes broken judicial system

Written by Hannah Schwartz and Katherine Risi, Common Cause interns on June 8, 2016

Amid the nationwide outcry over the light sentence Santa Clara (CA) Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky imposed last week on a former Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexual assault, the judicial election process that put Persky on the bench and is helping him stay there has gone all but unnoticed.

That’s unfortunate, because the process cries out for reform.

Judge Persky has run unopposed since his appointment to the court in 2003. That’s typical for California jurists. Of the 351 seats up for reelection this term, only 22 are contested. More than 85% of California’s judicial candidates in 2016 were incumbents.

Research indicates that the growing cost of judicial races has served to suppress challengers, helping re-elect many judges without consideration of their performance. According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Public Financing of Judicial Campaigns, “qualified candidates who lack connections to wealthy contributors may be impaired in their ability to compete effectively for judicial office.”

While the challenge of raising money keeps some potential challengers from entering judicial races, it also makes campaigning more difficult for those who run. Incumbents typically have solidified ties with donors, particularly in states like California that have no limits on campaign donations for judicial elections.

Judge Persky’s election this year carries a six-year term, though critics of his handling of the Stanford rapist’s case are pushing for a recall election to remove him.  A competitive election this year might have saved them the trouble, and saved California taxpayers the cost of a second vote.

One way to foster more competition would be a shift to public financing of campaigns. Only two states, New Mexico and West Virginia, have permanent public financing programs for judicial campaigns. With less reliance on private donations to fund judicial campaigns, public financing makes it easier for challengers to run.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: More Democracy Reforms

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