Calif. impartial courts panel outlines recommendations

Legal News Line Aug. 19, 2008, 1:28pm

Ming Chin

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - Following its high-profile public hearing in Sacramento, which drew former governors and legal experts to the state Capitol in July, California's Commission on Impartial Courts has given a low-key progress report to the Judicial Council documenting its progress, early recommendations and plans for the coming months.

Each of the commission's four task forces suggested plans to continue to protect the state's legal system from what it called the influence of partisan politics, financial incentives and attack ads that could threaten a judge's ability to enforce the law in an unbiased, non-political manner.

The report -- two years in the making by the committee led by state Supreme Court Associate Justice Ming Chin and comprised of dozens of legal, political and media leaders from across the state -- establishes a road map for the future of California in regards to defending its court system.

"Courts throughout the country are facing unfair political attacks that threaten to weaken our democracy and jeopardize every American's right to equal access to justice," Chin said Chin, explaining the goal of the commission.

The interim report contains more than 50 tentative recommendations from the subcommittees. The Task Force on Judicial Campaign Finance has yet to agree on any recommendations, "although it has considered a number of major campaign finance issues affecting judicial elections," the report states.

Educating the public about the role of judges is a prominent part of the report's recommendations. The Task Force on Public Information and Education made 30 tentative recommendations.

"The task force found an immediate and long-term need to inform and educate students, voters and the public about the importance of fair, impartial and accountable courts," the report states.

The task force said this lack of knowledge stems from a drastic decline in public school civics instruction.

"An uneducated public is more susceptible to an unwarranted attack on the judiciary," the report states.

Solutions include improving classroom curriculum. Judges and staff could make classroom visits. The task force also urges support for legislation that would require the superintendent of public instruction to develop a plan for a model civics education program.

The power of the silver screen may also be adopted, the report states, suggesting that funding be found to create a film that could be shown to the voters, jurors and high school seniors.

The impartial courts commission says it is concerned that with a growing interest in judges' personal opinions on divisive issues, justices will face increasing challenges based on partisan or political differences rather than a justice's ability to enforce the law in fair and impartial fashion despite his or her personal opinions.

In response to these concerns, the education task force's high-priority recommendations are to continue the implementation of judicial performance evaluations and to "inform the public that systems are in place to deal with judicial performance issues in fair and effective ways," the report states.

Also, campaign conduct, itself a subject of one of the four task forces, is scrutinized in detail, with a focus on legal wording that would better protect judges, while clarifying the definition of "impartiality," the appropriate way to respond to personal or professional attacks and the use of political tools, like mailers and endorsements.

The Task Force on Judicial Selection and Retention made several preliminary recommendations on issues of diversity, qualifications and the evaluation of candidates.

The commission's final recommendations are expected in the Spring of 2009.

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