STANFORD -- It didn’t take long for public outrage to hit social media and other digital platforms when Judge Aaron Persky handed down what some perceived to be a lenient six-month sentence to convicted rapist and former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, whose case created considerable debate on how accountable judges should be to the public.
Part of that outrage to the judge's decision converted to public petitions to recall or impeach Persky. On retainjudgeperksy.com, Persky pleas for support from the people, explaining that he believes strongly in judicial independence.
“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to appease politicians or ideologues,” he says on the website. “When your own rights and property are at stake, you want the judge to make a fair and lawful decision, free from political influence.”
Persky attempts to convince people that his record shows his balanced approach to victims of hate crimes and rape in the past.
“As a prosecutor, I prosecuted hate crimes and sexually violent predators,” he said. “I received the California Association of Human Relations Organizations civil rights leadership award for my work on hate crimes. I served as a board member for the Support Network for Battered Women and was a member of the Santa Clara County Network for a Hate-Free Community.”
In a June article from The Marshall Project, they explained that recalling a sitting judge is almost unheard of, both in California and nationally.
“Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., allow the recall of state officials, but only eight allow it for judges — because the judicial branch is traditionally seen as deserving protection from popular whim, political pressure, or, as in this case, the increasing influence of social media,” the article said.
Because of this undercurrent of protection, many find a recall to be highly unlikely.
“Recall is much, much more common for local and municipal officials, like school board officials and city council members,” William Raftery, a senior analyst for the National Center for State Courts, said in an interview with The Marshall Project. “Judges are only supposed to face recall, if at all, when they’ve committed a crime while in office or are deemed physically or mentally incompetent to actually do their job.”
Furthermore, the states that allow judges to be recalled have statutes stipulating that it can only happen if the judge has committed some act of malfeasance (like taking bribes or public drunkenness), or skipping hearings and struggling in old age to keep up, for example.
“The discretionary performance of a prescribed duty, like Persky’s decision in the Turner case, is rarely grounds for a recall,” The Marshall Project article said.
On the one side, advocates against campus rape argue that in a time of great distrust of the criminal justice system, the public should have more direct ways of holding its elected representatives accountable.
Maria Ruiz at Change.org issued a petition for impeachment, stressing that despite considerable public opposition, Persky failed the legal system and the people it is supposed to protect.
“A unanimous guilty verdict, three felony convictions, the objections of 250 Stanford students, Jeff Rosen the district attorney for Santa Clara, as well as the deputy district attorney who likened Turner to ‘a predator searching for prey,' Judge Persky allowed the lenient sentence suggested by the probation department,” Ruiz said. “Judge Persky failed to see that the fact that Brock Turner is a white male star athlete at a prestigious university does not entitle him to leniency. He also failed to send the message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class, race, gender or other factors.”
On the other hand, opponents of recalling judges say that there can be such a thing as an excess of democracy, especially when it comes to the judicial branch.
“Such a recall is rare nationwide, and by design, California’s system makes it difficult,” an Aug. 27 article from Los Angeles Daily News said. “But amid a constellation of factors, some legal experts believe we could be plunging into a new era in which judges increasingly fear losing their jobs over unpopular decisions—and that, in turn, may influence how they behave on the bench.”