Judicial Branch Elections: A primer on democracy in California’s judicial branch

Posted on November 5, 2011


California’s judicial branch elections aren’t as clear cut as some might understand them to be. We don’t in fact vote for every judge that sits on the superior court bench or justice at the courts of appeal or the supreme court.

While judges and justices are both appointed by the governor, only justices stand for retention elections. If the electorate is unhappy with an appointment of the governor or the performance of a justice of the courts of appeal or the supreme court, the electorate can simply choose to not return a justice to office and the governor will appoint a new justice to the appellate or supreme court that shall be affirmed by the people.

Judges, on the other hand are not subject to retention elections. In fact, if no one files the proper paperwork while meeting the necessary qualifications to run against a standing judge – and there is no declared write-in campaign that garners the proper amount of signatures, judges in California do not appear on the ballot and are deemed re-elected.

Temporary judges like 18 year temporary veteran of the Shasta Bench Jack Halpin are never subject to challenge.

Quite a few of the websites and individuals that post here, that link to us or that we may link to like to discuss reforming California’s judicial branch. As an attorney thinking about running for a judgeship against a standing judge, it is generally considered bad form to run against a judge in the very courts you have to practice law in. And therein lies part of the problem. It is also generally the practice of judges and justices to retire from the bench when the party of the party that appointed them occupies the governors chair, though there can be any number of other reasons a judge or justice might return to private practice or retire outside of those boundaries. It appears that for the electorate to successfully challenge a standing judge that the electorate might need to enlist a qualified candidate to challenge a standing judge in an effort for them to be successful.

How might the election process be made more meaningful for the voters for them to better hold these elected officials accountable? One idea might be to have every standing superior court judge stand for retention elections much like justices do. Another might be for qualified bar candidates to simply reflect their desire to be a judicial candidate in a particular county as a part of their online CalBar profile with both an interest yes/no checkblock as well as a space to link to a interest statement or candidate statement website.  In this manner, they might simply be running for an office as opposed to choosing to challenge a standing judge should an electorate be motivated enough to nominate a challenger to a seat on the superior court bench.

Judicial Council Watcher understands the plight of those caught up in systems and legal decisions that seem to be unfair or don’t make sense. We respect the status quo being challenged at all levels. However, unlike other websites, our focus is not on individual cases or causes at the court level, even though from time to time we will be reflecting upon our own opinions in these pages . We believe that there are many other websites and resources that are better qualified and better suited to address individual cases, causes and concerns. One of the main reasons you will find us reaching out and highlighting some of these cases, causes and concerns is because we often share those concerns, yet we’re not the experts. We have no boots on the ground in Shasta County to co-sponsor BlindBulldog but we share many of their concerns. We have no  volunteers over at The Center for Judicial Excellence  yet we support their cause.  We’re not Court Reporters but we support their cause. We don’t explore the inner workings of the California Bar or some of its many players or questionable dealings but we support Leslie Brodie’s cause. We believe that the family court industrial complex is in dire need of reform and we support whistleblower emily gallups cause.

The primary focus of Judicial Council Watcher is the operations and governance of the Judicial Council and their administrative arm, the AOC and how they and their committees might interrelate into this other activity brought up by us and others. While we also recognize that there are a myriad of issues of a legal nature that we cover, such as in-perpetuity appointments of assigned judges, the family court legal industrial complex, the untoward influence of corporate (and billionaire)influence upon the judiciary, we’re most concerned about the rights of AOC and court employees to organize if they choose to and have a career they can rely on, the promotion of even greater whistleblower protections and installing better safeguards against fraud, waste and abuse and public corruption, the most effective of which we believe would be democratization of the council itself and enhancing the functions of the CJP with an inspector general of the judicial branch, appointed by the Governor and affirmed by the legislature much like any other political appointment. We also hold the belief that California’s judicial branch has no business in the construction or building management business and shouldn’t be re-inventing the wheel when it comes to case management systems when there are viable commercial off the shelf solutions that can be configured for this purpose.


It is the people that manage in this set of buildings that concern us most.

The Earl Warren Building and Courthouse at Civ...

  Death Star? Borg collective? You decide