The Los Angeles Superior Court serves 9.5 million people with courtrooms spread throughout the 4,000-square-mile county. Its judges oversee both civil and criminal trials that deal with state law – everything from murder to theft to contract disputes. This year, voters are being asked to choose from eight candidates to fill four spots on that court.
It's a big deal, but it's tough to feel fully prepared to cast a ballot for these judges. Next week, we'll be hearing from all eight candidates running for a seat on the bench — as well as a current judge — about what the job requires.
But to start things off, we're joined by Jessica Levinson, professor at Loyola Law School, to find out why we have the judicial election system we do and what the important points are for those seeking to cast an informed vote.
1) What judicial positions am I voting for?
The November 8 ballot includes elections for four offices on the L.A. Superior Court. In June's primary, the top two vote-getters were selected to move on to the general election, meaning voters will see eight candidates — two vying for each seat.
Jessica Levinson on what the Superior Court judges do:
"Superior Court judges make a lot of really important decisions…. for instance, on all civil matters and criminal matters that deal with state law. On civil matters, they deal with contract disputes and they deal with torts. On criminal matters, these are judges that make decisions on all criminal laws, from petty theft to gang homicides. So we are putting a lot of power and trust into these state trial court judges."
2) How long are their terms?
Superior Court judges serve 6-year terms. If a seat becomes vacant before the end of its term, the governor may make a temporary appointment to fill the seat for the duration of the term.
Jessica Levinson on Superior Court judge re-election:
"The reason we don’t see these judges again on the ballot is that once you are on the bench, you only appear on the ballot again for Superior Court if there’s a contested election – if someone runs against you. In the vast majority of cases, sitting Superior Court judges are not challenged, so if there’s no opposition, these names don’t appear on the ballot again. So, they are up for election again but they aren’t actually oftentimes subject to a vote, and they keep their job because there’s no one who runs against them."
3) How are judges selected in California?
In California, like in a lot of other states, we have what is called a "hybrid system." We have elections for judges in the Superior (or trial court) level. In contrast, on the appellate level, a commission reviews candidates and makes a recommendation to the governor. The governor then decides who to appoint to the seat. After their first term, appointed appellate court judges are up for a "retention election."
Jessica Levinson on why trial judges are elected by voters:
“We think we should have a role in deciding who’s making these very important decisions about our lives...What we think is that elections provide us with some accountability, that it ensures that judges are doing their job, that it ensures that they have the right judicial temperament, that it ensures that if they’re following the law and if they are not doing that, we have a way of removing them. We have a way of saying, 'We don’t want you to keep your job anymore.' … We think that they have very important positions and we think they should be accountable to the people they serve.”
4) Where does that three-word-description on my ballot come from?
On the ballot, each judicial candidate's name is followed by a three-word job description. In judicial races, which typically draw far less attention than other, more high-profile races, that description can take on added importance.
Jessica Levinson on the role of the three-word job description:
"The job descriptions are based on what that person actually does. There’s actually a lot of litigation sometimes about the job description because we know that’s probably the most important piece of information that voters get when they’re weighing in on judges. So, you can’t have a job description that’s false or misleading. If you are a gang homicide prosecutor, you can’t say that you’re a defense attorney. We do give people a certain amount of leeway when they’re describing themselves. I think those three words are probably the most important when people are determining who they’re going to vote for, because they think, 'This person is a "child welfare advocate," or this person is a "sex crimes prosecutor" – that sounds like someone who should be a judge. They’re protecting the people I care about.' Or [it could be] a 'gang homicide prosecutor' and I don’t like gangs or I don’t like homicide, so that’s a very popular description."
5) Where can I get more information about the candidates and judicial races in general?
This series is a part of our #VoterGamePlan, in which we make it easier for you to vote. For a digital version of your personalized ballot, visit kpcc.org/votergameplan.
You can also check out the following resources for more information: