“The more that I hear about what’s going on across the country, the more concerned I am,” Chin told members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, who met Tuesday to consider “Judicial Elections in California: Threats to the Perception of Fairness.”
The hearing started with a video presentation of judicial campaign commercials that recently aired in other states. A dozen ads smeared various court candidates by linking them to insurers, trial lawyers or heinous criminals supposedly released too soon from prison.
The spots were an odd sight for an audience in California, where the judicial system is shaped largely by gubernatorial appointments and unremarkable retention elections.
But Chin warned lawmakers that the commercials “will come if you’re not ready.”
Chin’s Commission for Impartial Courts has made dozens of recommendations for limiting the influence of campaign cash on judges while expanding public information about judicial candidates. Legislation introduced by Assembly Judiciary Chairman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, tracks one of the committee’s recommendations by proposing that trial court judges be forced to disqualify themselves from cases involving litigants or attorneys who gave more than $1,500 toward their election.
The two-hour discussion -– which included presentations by University of California, Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Stanford Law School Professor Pamela Karlan -- touched on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions removing limits on independent campaign expenditures by corporations (Citizens United v. FEC) and declaring that a judge’s campaign contributions can infringe upon a litigant’s due process rights (Caperton v. Massey).
Among the ideas floated by different participants in response to those decisions: employ public funding of judicial elections; require sponsors of judicial campaign commercials to identify themselves in larger type or to list any cases they have pending under the court seat up for grabs; and lengthening the terms of trial court judges.