By Marielena Castellanos
Most politicians have term limits, but judges do not. Judges across the U.S. hold powerful positions, but they are often not well known to the public. Many judges are elected by voters just like mayors, state legislators and members of Congress. But most voters know very little about judges running to be elected.
This week, a diverse group of residents, parents, and students filled a large room at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista to learn about the judicial branch of government and how they can approach voting for judges, as part of a workshop to promote civic education and engagement making its way throughout the state entitled Judge the Judges.
Data from the Civic Learning Partnership shows there is an urgency to educate the public about judges. Just 8 percent of eligible 18-to-24-year-old voters cast a ballot in California’s last midterm election, and only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government.
“In America, fairness is the foundation of our laws,” a narrator says in a video that played before the audience who attended the workshop.
The video was made by the National Association of Women Judges, which is dedicated to preserving the judicial independence of women, minorities and other historically disfavored groups and providing judicial education.
The narrator goes on to say our founding fathers created a branch of government dedicated to fairness, a third branch of government equal to the others. A branch whose only job is to decide what’s fair. It is the judicial branch, made of our courts and judges.
“Judges who don’t represent one group or party. Judges who don’t make decisions based on their personal opinions. Impartial judges who apply the law without playing favorites. Free from fear, or prejudice. Free from the influence of special interest groups. Free from emotions that fuel our country’s most divisive debates. Judges who don’t bend the rules. Judges who don’t bend to pressure. Judges that stand for fairness.”
“America’s courts are fair. Help keep them that way with an informed vote,” is the final message from the narrator in the video.
In 2011, the California Administrative Office of the Courts released demographic data on the ethnicity of the state’s judges and justices: 72 percent white, 8 percent Latino, 6 percent African American, 6 percent Asian and other smaller percentages of minorities. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Latinos made up 39 percent of California’s population.
Last November, 1-in-5 Latinos said they or a family member had been treated unfairly by the courts in a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Administrative Presiding Justice Judith D. McConnell of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals is the co-chair of the Civic Learning Partnership of San Diego. Justice McConnell spoke after the introductory video ended.
She explained why she got involved teaching people about judicial selection and elections, and about the courts as a whole, stating “Because people vote for judges with little information about their judging, they don’t know who to pick when they’re voting for a judge.”
Each year, over 1 million voters leave the ballot blank when it comes to voting for judges, the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) states, and the group has also said many voters do not know what to look for in selecting judges, or don’t know why they are even on the ballot.
“State Courts hear most of the cases,” Justice McConnell said. The Superior Court of San Diego County is the local branch of our state court.
Approximately 95 percent of all legal cases initiated in the United States are filed in state courts, according to a 2009 report from the Court Statistics Project.
“Each year 100 million cases come before state court judges. They hear everything from traffic to first degree murder, family law, juvenile, probate, and make decisions on contracts, business disputes, restraining orders, visiting rights in a divorce, how long a sentence will be, how much you have to pay when you get a ticket,” Justice McConnell pointed out to the group.
Justice McConnell also said, “Judges protect the rights of people. Sometimes a majority is not a majority decision it’s going to have a bad effect on certain people. The courts have an obligation to protect the rights of the minority against the majority and determine if the law is unconstitutional.”
She also explained in California there are three levels of judges: trial courts, courts of appeal and the state supreme court, the highest court in the state.
Two ways trial judges are selected are either by being appointed by the governor or by running for election.
Justice McConnell also said court of appeal and state supreme court judges are appointed by the governor, and the public votes yes or no for them when they are on the ballot.
Panelists discussed several ways to learn more about judges, including doing research online. Every decision a judge makes is in writing and be can be reviewed online and found on the California Court’s website in the Opinions section. Voter’s Edge California, a joint project from the League of Women Voters and MapLight has biographies and background information on judges on its website. The County Bar Association also evaluates judges.
Alvin Gomez, chair of the Judicial Election Evaluation Committee with the San Diego County Bar Association, explained how judges are evaluated by the Bar Association. He added there are four ratings given to judges which include, extremely qualified, well qualified, qualified, and lacking qualifications.
One other resource is a handout from the Informed Voters, Fair Judges Project of the National Association of Women Judges, entitled “Evaluating Candidates and Evaluating Appellate Judges,” which provides information voters may want to use when deciding on whether to vote for a judge or not. It can be found and downloaded for free on the NAWJ’s website.
Justice McConnell also explained some complaints against judges are private, and a judge learns about the complaint through a private letter while the public does not learn about it. Other complaints, if they are found valid, can be found on the California Commission on Judicial Performance’s website.
The workshop was organized by several organizations including South Bay Community Services, the Civic Learning Partnership of San Diego, the San Diego County Bar Association and the League of Women Voters.
Ofelia Martinez, a resident of Chula Vista who attended the workshop thanked the panelists for sharing the information.
“The Latino community absolutely—we are not involved and we don’t know how to vote for judges,” Martinez said at the end of the meeting.
“This is information that we absolutely need. I’m always pestering my husband to go vote for president, go vote for governor, but I have never heard of this information in the past. This is very important. Judges are very important, they are part of the community, they help the community. The Latino community needs to know about this. Don’t forget about us,” Martinez added.