The middle portion of the ballot is made up of what seems like an endless selection of yes or no votes focused on judge positions. When I get to this portion in every single election I feel as if I’m in high school and have just stumbled upon a true/false portion of a test that I forgot to study for.
I usually do not recognize a single name, and don’t really have a clue on what the real life impact of these positions actually are. Every single voter guide online that I can find doesn’t do a great job suggesting a candidate with a clearly articulated set of reasons why they would be qualified for the job.
After all these years I finally decided to dig in to see what I’m actually voting for in the judicial branch.
The California court system is made up of judges who sit on local superior courts in each of California’s counties. It is also made up of justices who sit on the 6 districts of the Courts of Appeal, and the California Supreme Court.
Superior court judges serve six-year terms and are elected by county voters on a nonpartisan ballot during even-numbered years. Vacancies occurring during those terms are filled through appointment by the Governor.
In order to qualify, a superior court judge must either have been an attorney in California or served as a judge in California for at least 10 years immediately preceding an election or appointment. The vast majority of superior court judges initially reach the bench via governor appointment after a previous judge has vacated the position.
Superior court judges wield an immense amount of direct power. They provide instructions to juries prior to their deliberations which can have a heavy influence on the ruling of a case. In the case of bench trials, judges must decide the facts of the case themselves and make a ruling. Additionally, judges are also responsible for sentencing convicted criminal defendants.
California justices go through a slightly different process. They also have farther reaching power, as their precedents on ambiguous cases dictate how similar cases are dealt with throughout the state.
Supreme Court Justices & Appellate Court Justices are selected through a three-step process.
1. First they are appointed by the governor
2. Second, they are confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments
3. Third, they are retained or approved by voters for 12-year terms in every gubernatorial election
Once a justice has been appointed, retention elections are nonpartisan. There are no opponents and voters simply select “yes” or “no” beside each name.
It is exceedingly rare that voters do not automatically vote through appointed justices. The last time voters did not automatically approve appointed justices was In 1986. Upset that the court was delaying capital punishment case, voters did not grant Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other justices new 12-year terms.
The vast majority of the time (in California at least) judges go through a dizzying array of vetting processes and are held to a high standard even before their name gets on the ballot. Even still, it’s valuable to be informed and do quick searches on all those names to ensure their philosophies on how justice should be administered align with yours.
Voting signals the values that you want to see reproduced in the society around you. Voting for judges is no different, as it signals the values of justice you would like to see imparted on the community around you.