The question of recalling Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky over his sentencing decision for Stanford student Brock Turner in the notorious campus rape case has policy and political implications that goes to judicial independence and could even play a minor role in a coming statewide ballot initiative campaign.
Petitions calling for Persky’s removal from the bench have gathered over a million signatures. Recall efforts have been endorsed by some of the state’s top politicians including Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who co-authored a law to prevent campus rape.
On the other hand, UC-Irvine law school dean and strong liberal voice, Erwin Chemerinsky, opposes the recall as “a real threat to judicial independence.”
Advocates of the recall want to make an example of Persky and send a message to other judges who sit on sexual assault cases. Sen. de León argued in a press release endorsing the recall, “We need more judges and elected leaders who are committed to both preventing and deterring rape and sexual assault, whether by enacting more tough laws in legislatures or through fierce penalties in the judicial system through the courts.”
De Leon’s suggestion of “enacting more tough laws” is precisely the concern voiced by opponents of a recall attempt. They fear Persky’s leniency could lead to specific sentences mandated by law taking discretion away from jurists. As defense attorneys who rallied to Persky’s side claimed, a recall would “have a chilling effect on judicial courage and compassion.”
Interestingly, one of the features of Gov. Jerry Brown’s parole reform initiative that will appear on the November ballot is to give judges more discretion. It would allow judges the choice to keep some juveniles from being tried as adults. Will opponents to Brown’s measure latch onto that item and remind voters of Judge Persky’s decision during the campaign as an example of judicial discretion?
The policy and the precedence of recalling a judge for issuing a sentence he or she deems appropriate is extremely important but don’t think for a moment I have forgotten the victim who wrote a compelling letter to the court that has received national attention. In fact, the whole case brought back memories for me of a like situation I was involved in many decades ago, also in college.
Along with a couple of other men on the dormitory floor, we responded to screams coming from one of the rooms. An individual in our group said that earlier that evening a friend of the man who actually occupied that dorm room came back with a woman. Like the Stanford swimmer, the man was an athlete, in this case a football player. In answering our knock on the door and our vocal inquiries, the football player opened the door and assured us everything was all right. However, the woman used the opportunity of our presence to escape the room and later contacted police.
I was a witness for the prosecution at the trial. In a defense that no longer would apply, we were told the man was found not guilty because the woman had taken her involvement with the man “too far” before she said stop. In an age of different norms and before social media, there was no post-decision public outcry.
Because of my experience, as in the Stanford case, I recognize the need for justice and the desire of many people to see an example set. The issue that must be weighed: would punishing the judge set a precedent that allows popular will to hamper judicial action?
Even though most agree that the sentence given Brock Turner was unjustly light, “a soft time out,” the victim expressively phrased it, Turner still faces consequences the rest of his life. He must register as a sex offender for life and suffer with all that comes with that designation, as San Francisco Chronicle and syndicated columnist Debra Saunders points out.
The Marshall Project, named for former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, notes in writing about the Stanford case, that while 19 states allow for recall of state officials, only 8 allow for recall for judges “because the judicial branch is traditionally seen as deserving protection from popular whim, political pressure, or, as in this case, the increasing influence of social media.”
The concern is as old as the country. Alexander Hamilton, writing Federalist Paper 78, defending the life appointment of federal judges, in essence argued that the judicial branch could safeguard against the tyranny of the majority by staying above political influence with secure appointments. The only standard judges would have to meet to hold office as ascribed in the Constitution was to maintain “good behavior.”
Does good behavior include one particular decision in a high profile case? If the judge’s ruling was within the bounds of the law and based on recommendations from the parole officer, is a recall justified? Should more of the focus be on the parole officer who made the recommendation?
Unlike federal judges, California judges have to stand for election and can face a recall. A long list of ill-conceived judgments or malfeasance in office should be the basis for removing a judge by recall. One bad decision is not a sufficient basis for such an action.
However, the protests and agitation are necessary to bring the issue of sexual assault to the public conscience.