On the Aaron Persky recall

Today, California voters go to the polls to determine whether Judge Aaron Persky should be recalled. Persky, of course, is known for handing an extraordinarily light sentence to Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of three counts of sexual assault.

Turner’s conduct was unconscionable, and his sentence shockingly light. But the effort to recall Persky for that single act of sentencing is itself an awful idea that should have been put down long ago. Here is what I wrote last July:

Turner’s actions were hideous, and it is certainly understandable why a light sentence would be greeted with surprise and even outrage.  And Judge Persky’s standard defense–that any challenge to his discretion would compromise judicial independence–sounds almost ridiculous in this context.  But the recall effort is still a terrible idea.

Judicial recall, non-retention, and impeachment are all tempting weapons of the outraged class who seek to remove or punish a judge for a single controversial decision. California is no stranger to this sort of activity. In 1986, three state supreme court justices were successfully targeted for non-retention based on a single decision the court had rendered on the death penalty. Across the country, similar efforts have targeted judges for their decisions on everything from same-sex marriage to the disposition of property. Attacks have come both from the left and the right. The unifying theme of these efforts has been to try to wedge a judge’s entire career into a single decision. Never do they even attempt to consider or reflect upon the judge’s overall performance, skill, or temperament.

That is because efforts such as this serve one purpose: to score political points. Sometimes the goal is to drive voters to the polls in a general election to improve a political party’s overall prospects. Sometimes the goal is tactical, to create an opening on the bench that could be filled by a politically like-minded politician. Sometimes it reflects a deep misunderstanding of the judge’s ruling. Sometimes it is mere virtue signalling.

So it is here.  I have seen nothing to indicate that those seeking to recall Judge Persky have ever previously expressed concern about his fitness as a judge. He has already been cleared of any abuse of discretion by a state commission. And while a comprehensive judicial performance evaluation program would provide helpful context on Judge Persky’s overall body of work, California has no such program.

One can be shocked and angered by the Brock Turner sentence and still see this recall effort as for what it is: a transparent and poorly thought-out effort to score points with a political base. Californians deserve better.

Mob justice is no justice. Will Californians preserve judicial independence (flawed as it may be) against the wrath of the mob, or will they sacrifice their judicial system to the political vultures? Today I am hopeful, if not terribly optimistic, that they will do the right thing.

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