The six-month sentence imposed by the judge in the Stanford University sexual assault case has ignited calls for greater judicial accountability and transparency in California state courts.
Among them, Assemblywoman Catharine Baker has requested an audit of the body that investigates judicial misconduct, the Commission on Judicial Performance.
The state created the Commission on Judicial Performance in 1960 as an independent agency responsible for investigating complaints against the state’s 2,175 active judges. It’s mandated to protect the public against “incompetency, misconduct or nonperformance on the bench.”
However, as the Stanford case illustrates, the public has access to little information on how the commission conducts its investigations.
The Stanford case became a national controversy when Judge Aaron Persky sentenced former student Brock Turner to six months in prison after a jury found him guilty of three sexual assault charges. Turner faced a possible 14 years in prison, but Persky said a longer sentence would have a severe impact on the former Stanford swimmer.
The commission won’t report how many complaints have been filed against Persky, even as his handling of another case draws scrutiny.
“Complaints to the commission and investigations are confidential,” said Victoria Henley, the director and chief counsel of the commission.
In requesting the audit, Baker, a Republican from San Ramon, hopes to open up a commission that has been criticized for its lack of action and lack of transparency.
Only 1.45 percent of complaints submitted by litigants – essentially, members of the public – result in disciplinary actions, according to the commission’s most recent 20-year report.
From 2006 to 2015, over 80 percent of disciplinary actions were categorized as “private.” Of the 11,309 complaints filed, only 65 disciplines were made public, or less than 1 percent.
California also has a significantly lower public disciplinary rate than the other two most populous states, New York and Texas, according to the annual reports of each state. From 2005 to 2014, California, New York and Texas each processed over 10,000 complaints. However, based on the number of complaints disposed by each oversight agency, New York and Texas issued public disciplines at twice the rate of California.
“California’s only judicial oversight agency holds tremendous power over the lives of everyday Californians who have no other recourse when faced with a biased judge,” said Kathleen Russell, executive director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, a nonprofit working with lawmakers to reform the commission.
Currently the commission has 11 board members and approximately 20 staff members, and it meets every seven weeks, receives over 1,000 complaints a year, and according to the audit request, has never been audited.
Unlike legislators, judges in California enjoy a greater degree of confidentiality because the committee’s provisions allow this discretion.
“The voting public have no idea how many complaints have been made against their local judges, and for what, and what, if anything, the Commission on Judicial Performance has done about those complaints,” said Barbara Kauffman, a family attorney in San Rafael, who has had a complaint pending with the commission for over two years.
Baker’s request has been combined with a similar one from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Baker and the Senate judiciary chairwoman, Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, will present their request at the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Sacramento on Aug. 10. If the committee approves the request, the state auditor will be asked to conduct the inquiry.
Whitney L. Clegg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @wlclegg.