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Choose wisely when choosing the next Placer County judge

By: Rebecca L. Chenoweth
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Editor’s note: This is a candidate for Placer County Superior Court  judge. The Journal welcomes candidates to submit columns and a photo to ajournal@goldcountrymedia.com for publication.

Why should we be concerned about who are our judges?

Judges have more power over society than elected officials. 

Elected officials can make and pass all the laws, but it is a judge who determines how the laws are applied or who is impacted by these laws.

A concentration of power and wealth, having influence over local politics and the judiciary goes against a nation that is based on freedom and justice.

A judge should be independent, unbiased and not influenced by politics or politicians.

California does not have term limits for judges. 

Most of us agree that judges are human and make mistakes like anyone else. However, judges can react emotionally when determining whether or not a rule of law applies. This in effect creates their own personal rule of law. Politicizing of the courts is a growing trend which is concerning and needs to cease.

When local judges do not follow the rule of law, their decision can be appealed to a higher court, but at what expense? The vast majority of people cannot afford representation at the local level, and it is even more costly to engage in a lengthy appeal. This process makes access to court and law nearly impossible for the average citizen seeking justice and fairness.

Societal norms demand that it is absolutely an unquestioned necessity for each judge to maintain independence. This is paramount to upholding the rule of law, the Constitution, American justice and fairness. For this reason, I will not accept endorsements from politicians.

California Code of Judicial Ethics has five rules for judges to follow. California Judicial Canon 5 states that: “A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.”  What this means is that no judge should ever accept money, contributions, or backing from any person, party or organization that may appear before them. Judges must maintain neutrality and independence, and they must also maintain the appearance of neutrality and recuse themselves if ever an issue comes before the court that may be a conflict of interest, conflict with personal beliefs, or even has the appearance of conflict.  So why does an independent judge seek endorsements or support from elected officials?

When and How do we select our judges? 

The selection process for Superior Court Judges can be confusing and mysterious. We rarely get the opportunity to vote on candidates for judge. We typically do not see judges’ names on the ballots. This is because frequently superior court judges are appointed by the governor when there is a vacancy on the bench. 

A mid-term open seat usually occurs when a sitting judge retires before their six-year term ends.  At the end of the six-year term the new judge was appointed to fill, the appointed or incumbent judge submits the required paperwork to run to be elected in the June Primary Election, which typically has the lowest voter election turnout. However, if no other attorney runs against the appointed judge, their name does not appear on any ballot and that judge is “automatically elected,” thus denying the voters a voice in their governments’ legal actions. Most attorneys, no matter how well qualified they are, or how unpopular the judge may be, are not willing to run for judge against a sitting judge due to the overwhelmingly negative possible ramifications.

When we are given the opportunity to vote for our superior court judges, it’s not uncommon for us to know little or nothing about our candidates. Frequently we just look see who is endorsing the candidate and then make our selection based upon that information, no matter how limited the information may be. This results in abdicating our power to choose and giving it to elected officials and political appointees who are endorsing a candidate, further weakening our constitutional rights.

What is the motivation of elected officials and political appointees to endorse a candidate for judge?

We should be concerned about who sits in judgment on matters of controversy that occur in our community and those who endorse them. What is their motivation to help judges get elected and remain in their position of power and control, to determine what rule of law applies when, where and to whom? The judicial system appears to have veered off its intended true course to seek justice and protect our rights. How can we correct the situation and guarantee justice and freedom for all? By doing your homework, researching the candidates, and making your own independent choice.

Transparency isn’t always an appreciated quality in an attorney if the sole purpose is to win at all cost. My peers frequently have said to me I am too honest or that I’m too transparent. These qualities are paramount to a fair and just, independent and neutral judge. I treat people how I expect to be treated — with transparency, honesty, dignity and respect.

“When a judge does what is right according to the law, when a judge decides each case strictly on the merits,when a judge gives every case and every person the same treatment, our courts are what they have always been and must always be … fair and free.” — Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, retired.
Please help us all live better and choose wisely when choosing a judge.

Rebecca L. Chenoweth is a candidate for Placer County Superior Court judge.