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Legal heavyweights seek to protect Calif. judges

By Legal News Line | Jul 15, 2008

Ron Robie

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) -A cast of legislative and legal heavyweights at a public forum Monday said they were determined to protect California from increasing political pressure on judges.

The Commission on Impartial Courts hosted the forum that included testimony from former California governors, legal experts and heads of the state bar and judges associations.

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson said protecting the impartiality of judges required a revision of California's constitution.

Wilson, a Republican, said he would like to see the constitution forbid groups from trying to force candidates for judgeships to make personal views known.

Special interest groups are asking judges to fill out questionnaires on their personal views, a practice Wilson said is a threat to impartiality on the bench.

Justice Ron Robie of California Court of Appeals, who is a member of the commission, said he didn't agree a constitutional amendment is needed, but appreciated that Wilson started the debate.

"There will be a lot of discussion," Robie told Legal Newsline after the hearing, "I was pleased (Wilson) raised something that causes people to think about it. The task force assigned to that may well agree with his recommendation."

Robie believes the goal of Wilson's recommendation can be accomplished without changing the constitution.

"The constitution is always very long," Robie said, "and people want to put everything in it. You have to do an analysis and decide if it really needs to be amended.

"A statute that judges shouldn't comment on issues would be just as good. I think it can be a provision that judges don't have to follow, but our encouraged to, which is as far as you can go within the constitution."

Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson told the commission that Wilson's proposal could interfere with the first-amendment rights of freedom of speech, but she agreed, according to the Sacramento Bee, that something needs to be done.

"I don't like going around and constantly changing the constitution," Levenson said, "but I don't like that every judge is being asked to fill out these special-interest questionnaires."

Levenson said judges would face increasing political attacks if they filled out these questionnaires.

Robie said the forum was successful not just because of the prominent people who spoke, but that "it wasn't just people agreeing to the concept. They offered substantive ideas."

"I thought the forum was very interesting" Robie said. "There were many substantive comments. Both governors (former Gov. Davis also spoke before the commission) offered positive and specific suggestions."

Robie said he was encouraged by the testimony of Ohio's Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, who shared many of the problems that his state had recently endured and things Ohio is doing in response.

"It confirms some of the things we are already doing," Robie said. "He also said some of the negative attack ads actually turned off the voters and had the opposite effect... but the costs of the election were staggering."

Former Dean of Stanford Law School Kathleen M. Sullivan offered the commission, "specific legal suggests and constitutional analysis that was generally very positive," Robie said.

The chairs of the commission's four task forces will present an interim report of its respective findings to Judicial Council of California at its Aug. 15 meeting, said Robie, who is a member of the commission's steering committee.

The four tasks forces are judicial section and retention, judicial campaign conduct, judicial campaign finance and public information and education.

The final report from the commission will be presented in June 2009, according to Christine Patton, regional director with the administration office of the court.

Robie said he and others were encouraged by the feedback from Monday's forum as they prepare their interim reports.

"The general feeling is that we have a pretty good system here," Robie said. "We don't have partisan elections, and we have retention elections at the appellate level, so we're not taking a system that is fundamentally a problem."

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