National Law Day – Judicial Independence Panel Discussion
Apr 17, 2019
In honor of National Law Day, our library will be holding a judicial panel discussion with three esteemed justices from the Fourth Court of Appeal and two Riverside County Superior Court judges about the role of judicial independence in a politically divided society. But what is judicial independence and what shape does it take in the California judicial system? Judicial independence allows our judicial officers the ability to do their jobs without external influences. Let’s just say that the U.S. Supreme Court would look a lot different if their jobs hinged on American Idol call-in votes. But the notion of judicial independence is well-established for Article III Federal Judges (lifetime appointments during good behavior and all) but what about California State court judges? Doesn’t the notion of being appointed, “reelected,” and the threat of recall by the public have an effect on how a judge does their job?
Judicial independence came up recently as Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara was recalled for handing down a six-month jail sentence to Brock Turner who was convicted for sexual assault. You can read all about the story here. While this was the first recall of a judge in over 80 years for California, the notion of the recall vote called California’s recall process into question. Some argued that the recall would deter future judges from handing down lenient sentences in appropriate cases for fear of popular reprisal.
After several news articles and various factions supporting or admonishing the recall, there was a slight lull in the question of judicial independence until the sentencing of Paul Manafort. In that case, a judge sentenced Manafort to only 47 months in prison. The outcry was triggered by social justice advocates, citing disproportionate sentencing based on race and economic status. One public defender tweeted that they had a client who was serving more prison time for stealing laundry room coins than Manafort received for tax and bank fraud. Again, judicial independence was questioned, for more, see here.
Finally, one case that will likely incite further debate on the question of judicial independence is the recent college admissions scandal. Recently, it was reported that Lori Loughlin had rejected a plea deal and can now face up to 40 years in prison. For more on that story, click here. While experts say that it is very unlikely that she would serve out the entire length of that sentence, prosecutors are pushing hard to make an example out of everyone involved in the scandal. Given the amount of press scrutiny on this case, and the relative lack of a criminal history of the actors involved (at least I don’t remember rampant white-collar crime going on while watching Full House), it will be interesting what sentence is eventually handed down.
In the end, judicial independence is only as reliable as the judicial officers who uphold the integrity of the law. Sure, judges go through rigorous vetting, have a proven track record of judicial integrity, and generally are honorable human beings, but judicial officers are still just human. The reason why we hold judges with such high esteem is that they earn that right. But the real question is, how do judicial officers feel about their own job security in the current political climate? To hear more about these issues and more, please sign up for our one-hour MCLE judicial panel, being held on May 1, 2019. Click here to sign-up!