California held its primary election last week, and among the results was a successful recall of Judge Aaron Persky.
Persky was the judge who gave a six-month sentence to Brock Turner, a Stanford athlete convicted of sexually assaulting a woman who had passed out. The sentence was seen as a slap on the wrist, and in the #MeToo era, it aroused enormous anger.
I’m not arguing that the sentence was appropriate, or the anger unjustified. But recalling a judge whose decision in a case angers the general public is a serious and damaging assault on judicial independence. The Constitution gave us three branches of government–two of which are answerable to voters. Judges are supposed to be answerable to the Constitution and the rule of law.
As a public defender wrote in a column for Vox,
This was the first successful recall in California in almost 90 years. Though the recall only involved one judge, its impact will be felt nationwide.
It sends a dangerous message to judges everywhere: If we don’t like one decision you make, you’re out. That represents a terrible threat to judicial independence and highlights the problems with electing judges — or subjecting appointed judges to reelection. They need the protection to think independently, even if they sometimes make decisions we don’t like.
I am not arguing that Turner’s sentence was the right one. Indeed, as a public defender, I am all too aware of the racial and class disparities in sentencing that redounded to Turner’s benefit. I have previously written about the ways privileged criminal defendants often are rewarded precisely because of their privileges. (One need look no further than Harvey Weinstein, who easily posted bail and did not spend a day in jail after his arrest.) But allowing an uninformed public to punish a judge for one unpopular decision jeopardizes the integrity of our entire system.
I was living in Indianapolis when a federal court judge ruled that the city’s public schools must be desegregated. It was not a popular decision, to put it mildly–in fact, it was so unpopular that the Judge required police protection for a prolonged period. If he could have been recalled, the schools might still be segregated.
One of the reasons I oppose judicial elections is that a judge who knows he must face voters is likely to weigh the merits of a case against the probable public reaction. If you are a judge with a mortgage and a couple of kids in college, how willing will you be to buck public opinion in a high-profile case?
Ironically, as the Vox article notes, the effects of this recall are more likely to be felt by the disadvantaged than by the privileged.
Given that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and prosecutes the poor and people of color, the ones who suffer from judges feeling pressured to sentence harshly are not people with privilege like Turner, but those without privilege.
Judges have always had more incentives to punish harshly than leniently, and elections only increase these pressures. A Brennan Center for Justice study found that when judges are approaching reelection, they are more likely to impose harsher penalties. This is common sense, given that judges who have sentenced a defendant harshly rarely make the news….
When judges are looking over their shoulders, worried about losing their jobs if they enrage the public, the fairness of our system is compromised. Judicial independence is especially important because the public is often wrong, particularly on a local level.
Lawyers who actually practice in Judge Persky’s court–including the head prosecutor– report that he is a thoughtful, fair judge, and not known for leniency. In the Turner case, Persky had followed the probation department’s sentencing recommendation.
When we allow public outrage to trump respect for judicial independence, we throw the baby out with the bathwater.