Jurist Emphasizes Importance of Judicial Independence at Forum with Superior Court Candidates
Local voters got a rare chance to meet 18 candidates seeking six Los Angeles Superior Court posts as part of an open public forum on judicial elections at Southwestern at which a prominent jurist also warned of the dangers of the increasing politicization of the judiciary. The League of Women Voters in Los Angeles co-sponsored the May 20 event with Southwestern to give members of the public the chance to educate themselves on the candidates in the open and contested seats that appear on the June 8 primary ballot.
The program format provided time for voters to talk with candidates set up at tables replete with campaign signs and information pamphlets. A brief formal program featured remarks by the Honorable Judith McConnell, the Administrative Presiding Justice of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Diego, followed by an informal interview with the Justice conducted by KCET-TV Vice President and news anchor Val Zavala.
Justice McConnell commented that Californians must restore civics education to the schools so youngsters can become better educated about the critical importance of an independent judiciary to the American democracy. "Voters must know the proper role of the courts in our society," and civics classes with mandatory testing and standards for students would be an excellent way to see that occurs, she said.
As chair of the Public Information and Education Task Force of the Commission for Impartial Courts convened by California Chief Justice Ronald George, Justice McConnell led the effort to recommend actions that should be taken by the Judicial Council of California to safeguard the quality, impartiality, and accountability of the California judiciary.
At the Southwestern event, Justice McConnell warned that the judiciary's prized independence and perceived impartiality is in peril as never before. As long as judges must stand for election, she noted, they put their personal and professional standing at risk in their dealings with the sharply divided and partisan politics that holds sway today, adding that the pressure to win endorsements can create problems for would-be judges. She singled out as a growing problem the pointed political questionnaires that narrow interest groups fire at judicial candidates. How, she asked, can judges retain their impartiality if they are pressured to state their views about guns, abortion and other topics that might later come up in cases before them? She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court made it harder for judicial candidates to decline to respond to questions on their political positions when in 2002 it struck down Minnesota rules barring candidates from discussing issues that might come before them, citing free speech and First Amendment rights. [Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (536 U.S. 765)]
The Superior Court candidates in the audience at Southwestern, meantime, decried the costs of campaigning in a sprawling jurisdiction like Los Angeles County. They noted that election officials charge candidates in contested races almost $100,000 to defray the cost of a barebones listing of their qualifications in a countywide voter information publication in one language. In multilingual Los Angeles, where a candidate likely would wish to be touted in both English and Spanish, the cost to run in a multi-candidate race goes up, right at the start, to more than $200,000, including a filing fee that equals 1% of the roughly $180,000 annual pay of a Superior Court judge.
Justice McConnell urged the candidates to keep careful, clear, detailed and public accounting of their campaign contributions and funds, noting that judicial authorities have not hesitated to punish and remove judges who ignore the canons, legal ethics and election laws on conflicts of interest and other concerns.
Such somber matters did not dominate the entire program, as the candidates and voters alike said they enjoyed the chance to meet each other in the informal part of the forum staged in the law school's La Directoire salon. "I enjoyed the program very much and found it very useful because it can be difficult to learn what you need to make informed decisions on how to vote for judges," said Dustin Laurence, a Pasadena computer programmer who attended the session.
Representatives from the League and the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Office were also on hand to provide general information on the upcoming June primary along with a display of the League's online SmartVoter system.
Dean Bryant Garth and officials from the League's county and city organizations welcomed the audience of distinguished guests, including several appellate judges and top academics from UCLA and the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica. Assistant Dean Molly Selvin spearheaded the session, on which Professor J. Gary Hastings played a major program planning role.