Friday, May 25, 2018

Insurgent judicial hopefuls

We've got a novelty on the San Francisco June primary ballot: four experienced public defenders trying to unseat four incumbent Superior Court Judges. This doesn't happen often. The resurrected Bay Guardian endorsements explains why:
Under the state Constitution, Superior Court judges are elected officials, but the law has a loophole: If a judge steps down in the middle of their term, the governor appoints the replacement. And unless someone comes forward to challenge that incumbent, the race never even appears on the ballot. The vast majority of judges in the state who retire or otherwise leave the bench do so in the middle of their terms. So it’s rare that an open seat comes up.
Obviously this system ensures that political insiders, the sort of lawyers who know governors for example, have the inside track on being appointed. There's nothing underhanded about this, but it does tend to mean that governors of both parties appoint people who aren't boat-rockers. And mostly the voters never get any say.

Like most people who think about judicial elections, the idea makes me a little queasy. I don't want judges signaling their political opinions on the campaign trail or, especially, raising campaign money from the kind of people who give to obscure candidates -- rich people with controversial interests. I want judges doing their honest best to apply the law, not looking over their shoulders for fear of an electoral challenge.

The Trump era has reminded me that there can be social value in institutionalism -- that adhering to regular order can be a bulwark against demands from a demagogue who incites and claims his legitimacy from popular excitement.

But the regular order in the local legal system and the courts has not been good, or fair, or honest to a lot of people. Just today, the regular legal order that protects cops who shoot irresponsibly absolved the killers of two local citizens.

And the judicial insurgents -- Phoenix Streets, Maria Evangelista, Kwixuan Maloof, and Niki Solis -- have put in the time in the San Francisco Public Defender Office to know all too much about what the justice system looks like to folks who are in trouble, poor, mostly of color, mostly without powerful, "respectable" advocates. Our PD office is an extraordinarily well run branch of the city government. Judges with their experience would genuinely diversify the local bench.

The challengers are running a campaign that highlights that they are Democrats and that the judges they are challenging were appointed by Republican governors. This is not so surprising; we used to have Republican governors. But the judges they are challenging seem to be registered Democrats, just like the challengers. That is, they are San Franciscans. We pretty much don't do Republicans around here, even at the exalted reaches of society.

I wish the challengers had skipped the partisan appeal which is a bit of a red herring and stuck to promoting the diverse experience they would bring to the local bench. They are experienced, well-qualified attorneys who would bring something new to the courts. We need that. I will be voting for them.

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