Persky warns against the dangers of recalling judges as he fights to keep his job
Posted May 8, 2018 7:40 p.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO -- Voters are justified in removing judges who are crooked or inept, but not because they disagree with their rulings, said the judge who may become the first in California to be recalled in 86 years over his sentencing of a Stanford swimmer in a sexual assault case.
When judges who can't or won't do their jobs aren't reined in by appellate courts and the state's judicial disciplinary commission, ``perhaps there's a place for the judicial recall,'' Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky said Tuesday in his first meeting with an array of news media since the campaign to remove him from the bench began in 2016.
But recalls, he said, ``should be reserved for misconduct by a judge or incompetence. ... I don't think there's a place for a judicial recall based on lawful decisions by a given judge.''
The danger, he said, is that ``judges will feel that silent creeping force, that corrupting force'' before issuing sentences or controversial rulings.
The focus of the Persky recall campaign is the six-month jail sentence that the judge, a Stanford alumnus, imposed on Brock Turner, a former Stanford swimmer, in June 2016 after a jury convicted him of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
Prosecutors had sought a six-year prison sentence, while the court's probation office recommended the shorter jail term. Persky noted at the sentencing that Turner had no previous criminal record and said he would pose no public danger after his release, while being required to register as a sex offender each year for the rest of his life.
Public response to the victim's impassioned statement at the sentencing hearing, about the harm she continued to suffer, aroused a widespread furor over the sentencing and helped to fuel the recall campaign. Supporters turned in nearly 100,000 signatures on petitions, more than enough to put the issue on the June 5 ballot, when voters will decide whether to retain Persky or replace him with one of two judicial candidates.
Backers of the recall contend Persky has shown undue leniency to privileged white defendants in other cases. Persky, a former sex crimes prosecutor appointed to the bench by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, noted Tuesday that the state Commission on Judicial Performance had looked into the Turner case and found no ethical violations, and said the county Bar Association had found no pattern of bias or undue leniency in his record.
``There is a caricature of me that has been allowed to flourish,'' said Persky, who met with reporters at a private home in Palo Alto. He said he had expected some backlash to the Turner sentencing, but not as much as he's received -- like one email that asked him, ``How does it feel to be the most hated man in America?''
The organizer of the recall campaign, Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber, said in response that Persky is getting what he deserves.
``Judge Persky has a long pattern of bias in favor of privileged men ... who have committed violence against women,'' Dauber said in a statement. ``The voters in this county have lost confidence in his ability to be fair.''
The last successful judicial recall in California was in 1932, when Los Angeles voters removed three judges accused of taking kickbacks.
Persky acknowledged that his opponents' message was getting through to people. He said he decided to speak up now because there is ``a very real chance the recall will be successful.''
But his foes, he said, are resorting to ``the politics of fear.''
Persky declined to answer questions about the Turner case, saying it was still on appeal and he is therefore prohibited from commenting. But he said, ``I will stand by my decision.''
Asked about the impact of such crimes on victims, the judge said, ``I think about it all the time'' but must keep a ``laser focus on the facts and the law'' in his rulings.
``Women are frustrated by how they are treated by society, how they are treated by the criminal justice system,'' Persky said. ``That passion is genuine. It needs to be expressed.''
But too often these days, he said, the public is given ``a Twitter version of a case, in a certain way that can spark outrage.'' And ``public opinion,'' Persky said, ``does not have a place in the courtroom.''