Many election years, I get questions from family and friends asking for whom they should vote in a judicial election. This year, the stakes are higher and there are far more elections than usual. The San Diego Union published its endorsements today.
As usual, I recommend family and friends vote for the incumbents. This year is no different from usual, but the stakes this year are more important than usual. This year, a group has organized to run against a number of very good judges. Why? Because they want the law to be different from what it is, and view election to the bench as their way of changing the law. Talk about judicial activism! They have not chosen to oppose bad judges, just anyone in office, apparently selected at random. The Union has endorsed all but one sitting judge, and made no choice for the remaining seat. I can't disagree.
One of the judges running is not well respected: Not by lawyers, and not even by many judges. That doesn't change my position, and the Union has elected not to take a position in that race.
Lawyers who run against sitting judges, in the overwhelming number of cases, aren't the best of their profession. Often, not even close. I do not know well any of the judges still in the race - two of them had long stints in Divorce Court, where I saw them do their jobs well. I see no reason they should not be reelected, and the lawyers who have appeared in front of them far more than I speak highly of each.
A third former Family Law judge, Harry Powacek of Vista, was challenged by a lawyer who didn't meet the legal standards for the office and was kicked off the ballot. Although he does not have to run, Judge Powacek had legal expenses to deal with the matter in court. What had he done wrong? Nothing. He was just an incumbent. I appeared in front of him many hundreds of times, and he always tried very hard to do a good job.
Many such challenges come from a lawyer who didn't get the result he wanted in his own divorce. Many, just from lawyers who want the publicity because it may be good for business.
As I look back over the last 40 years of such nonsense, very few poor judges were opposed for election, and few great lawyers were challenging them for the position. Those few judges who lost reelection did so largely because on some horrible publicity: One was caught tearing down his opponent's campaign signs. One was accused of putting a "little old lady" in jail on Christmas Eve on a minor traffic matter. In the first case, the lawyer one and turned out to be a good judge. In the second, the replacement turned out to be a disaster. In each case, the judge was running against bad publicity for his personal conduct, or perceived conduct. These very rare occasions, where a judge screwed up and lost an election, have given comfort to potential challengers.
A few years back, a lousy judge was opposed by a mediocre lawyer - no one wanted the judge around, but the choice wasn't clear - the judge had not had a lot of bad publicity, so he won handily. In one election, a bad judge resigned when challenged, but that was a rarity.
The problem with the process: Judges are afraid to take legal positions out of fear they won't be re-elected when they sit every 6 years. The fear isn't great, since they have almost no chance of losing - but the cost of running, financial and emotional, is high. 25 years ago, a judge made a hard call and dismissed a few dozen drunk driving cases because the DA's Office screwed up in failing to charge the cases properly - he was right on the law and felt he had no choice. One of my friends decided to run against him because he sensed vulnerability - I didn't know the judge, but opposed my friend, who then withdrew when many others came to the judge's defense.
The process is broken, especially in this political climate. It will be further damaged by voting out very competent judges. That only serves to make those who remain more scared of losing their positions, and more likely to make safe choices when hard choices are called for. Even where the Union has elected not to endorse a candidate, I recommend a vote for the incumbent - it will help stop the nonsense of challenges where there is no need for change.