OPINION by STEW JENKINS
California’s Constitution requires county judges to stand for election every six years (Art. 6, Section 16 (b), (c)). It includes provisions for the governor to appoint a judge if there is a vacancy, when no election is pending, but the governor only appoints a new judge to fill out the remainder of the former judge’s six-year term. And, to protect voters’ right to control their judicial branch, a newly appointed judge must face the voters at the very next election if he or she is to keep the position and fill out the remainder of the term (Art. 6, Section 16 (c), Fields v Fong (1976) 18 Cal.3d 322; Stanton v. Panish (1980) 28 Cal.3d 107.).
But democracy is sometimes manipulated by the powers-that-be.
Some folks don’t think judges should be elected by voters; preferring to rely on the judgment of governors to select those who sit in judgment. Kind of odd that those particular elites trust voters to pick a governor to exercise good judgment in making appointments, but don’t trust voters to pick judges who daily sit in judgment of their fellow citizens. But, there you have it. There have been political forces for years seeking to throw artificial hurdles in front of those who might otherwise find the courage to run for judge.
Before I show you one of the hidden hurdles, why is this important?
Superior Court judges don’t just sit on criminal cases. They control the selection of grand juries. They decide cases on environmental issues, labor disputes, First amendment rights like freedom of the press, speech and religion. They preside over the custody of children and the support those children will have.
Superior Court judges ultimately decide whether or not police have overreached in searching your home, or whether a sheriff has kept prisoners safely in his jail or permitted them to be tortured, or killed by withholding medical treatment. And, Superior Court Judges hold the ultimate power to end government corruption (though they depend on private lawyers, grand juries, and district attorneys to bring evidence forward).
But there are even more basic issues. Superior Court judges decide how free your access to the courts will be. From as simple a thing as whether the clerk’s office will keep banker’s hours or alternatively be open as long as the AM/PM stores. And, whether you will be able to file your petitions and complaints on paper, or be required to hire a service to digitize your pleadings and submit them electronically.
A recent important example, which media has shined no light on, is the fact that over the last two years, the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judges have progressively forbidden filing paper pleadings. First it was applied to the probate lawyers, whose clients may not have noticed the required added $3.65 “fee” for filing even innocuous documents that had no filing fee (like a simple proof of service).
Next it was applied to civil and family law attorneys. Soon the requirement for electronic filing through private vendors will be applied to the District Attorney and the Public Defender. It is not difficult to predict that this “tax” on people’s access to the courts will eventually be extended even to those poor souls representing themselves in civil cases and criminal cases.
It is odd that, with the sense of history that most judges have, no one seems to have noticed the resemblance this mandated electronic fee, applied to every pleading and set of exhibits, resembles the Royal Stamp Act applied to the 13 American Colonies (a tax on every legal paper, news paper, and deck of playing cards). The Stamp Act led to the American Revolution.
But, let us get back to the manipulation designed to hobble the ability of the voters to elect judges, and the ability of lawyers to run for a judicial seat. The legislature has played with the opening and closing of the filing period for judge, to make it easy to miss and hard to notice.
To run for other offices, like supervisors, sheriff, or assessor, filing starts Feb. 12 and runs until March 9, 2018. But, to run for judge, you need to file your statement of intent to run a good month earlier between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, 2018. If a lawyer wants to avoid the filing fee, she or he can take out a petition in lieu and start passing it for signatures as early as Dec. 14, 2017, but it must be filed or the filing fee paid on or before Feb. 7, 2018.
Because three vacancies have occurred, and only two have been filled by Governor Jerry Brown, fully half of San Luis Obispo County’s judicial seats are up for election in 2018, according the clerk-recorder’s office.
In alphabetical order, they are Tana Coates (seat 9), Charles Crandall (seat 7), Jacquelyn Duffy (seat 6), Barry LaBarbera (seat 4), Craig van Rooyen (seat 13, and there is one currently vacant seat (#2).
There has never been a better year to win a judgeship. Any lawyer in active practice for the last 10 years (Cal. Const. Art. 6, Section 15) has a right to file to run for their judicial seat. Election of judges makes for better jurists and for better lawyers, who by running for office gain an understanding of the public’s expectations for the administration of justice as an important function of their democracy.
Oh, for those lawyers with a timid streak, judges understand that the California Constitution requires them to face voters every six years. Like lawyers, they are professionals. Having appeared in front of judges who were candidates in the same judicial election contest that I engaged in some years ago, I can assure you that no lawyer who has run for judge has ever suffered appearing before the winner of such a contest.
And the truth is, if you run, and lose, you will be a better lawyer, have more substantial clients, and your practice will flourish.
Stew Jenkins is a San Luis Obispo County attorney practicing in San Luis Obispo since 1978. Jenkins’ handles municipal law, Brown Act and Public Records Act cases, estate planning and family law. He supports the rights of working people to organize unions, growing the local economy by project labor agreements, the right of all people to health care and equal access to justice.