After being widely criticized for what many considered an overly lenient sentence for Brock Turner, Judge Aaron Persky ’84 M.A. ’85 faces what his supporters, such as retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge LaDoris Cordell, admit is an uphill battle in countering the highly visible campaign to recall him from the Santa Clara County Superior Court.
“There’s no question it’s an uphill battle,” Cordell said. “We’ll give it the best effort we possibly can.”
The recall effort has garnered big-name endorsements from across the nation, such as from New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, actress Amber Tamblyn and leaders from the National Organization for Women. The campaign also has a strong base of local support, as evidenced by its submission of 94,539 signatures to the Registrar of Voters, well above the 58,634 valid signatures needed to qualify the recall for the June 5 ballot.
Meanwhile, in the months leading up to the recall election, supporters of Persky have publicly disputed the recall campaign’s claims of Persky’s bias in favor of athletes and stressed the potential chilling effect a recall could have on judicial independence.
Cordell said that she has heard anecdotes from lawyers who think the fear of being “Perskied” — facing intense public backlash and the potential of being recalled for an unpopular decision — has already affected judges’ decision-making.
“They’re looking over their shoulders thinking, ‘Oh boy, am I going to be next?’” Cordell said. “That cuts to the very crux of our independent judiciary.”
Michele Dauber, chair of the Recall Persky campaign, pushed back against this assertion, stating that the judges in California are elected and thus accountable to the people they serve. Dauber said she “has faith in the integrity of other judges” not to give overly harsh sentences to individuals, including minorities.
Recall opponents stress that people don’t have to agree with Persky’s sentencing decision in the Turner case — the former Stanford student was sentenced to six months in jail, three years of probation and had to register as a sex offender — to oppose the recall.
“While I might not agree with the outcome of the reason why people are bringing the recall, I know that he was guided and was following, as many judges do, the probation department’s recommendation,” said Ann Ravel, former commissioner of the Federal Elections Commission who previously served as an attorney in the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office. “But if we were to recall every judge that we thought did something that we did not agree with? There probably wouldn’t be very many judges on the bench anywhere.”
All the while, Persky has kept a low profile since the recall campaign began and is prohibited from speaking publicly on pending cases — (including the Turner case, as Turner appealed his conviction in December). In January, Persky voluntarily moved from taking civil cases to serving as a night judge five days a week from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., a role in which he issues emergency protective orders and search warrants. He requested to be removed from trying criminal cases and was moved to the civil division in September 2016.
“As a prosecutor, I fought vigorously for victims. As a judge, my role is to consider both sides. California law requires every judge to consider rehabilitation and probation for first-time offenders,” said Persky in a rare statement in June, as part of his response to the notice of intention for his recall. “It’s not always popular, but it’s the law, and I took an oath to follow it without regard to public opinion or my opinions as a former prosecutor.”
Persky did not respond to The Daily’s interview request for this article.
In response to the claims of the recall campaign, Cordell pointed to several factors: a December 2016 finding of the California Commission on Judicial Performance that there is no evidence Persky demonstrated bias or misconduct; Persky’s service on the board of the Support Network for Battered Women; and his receipt of the California Association of Human Relations Organizations Civil Rights Leadership Award for his work on hate crimes.
Pointing to, among other factors, the Center for Public Integrity’s ‘F’ rating for judicial accountability in California, Dauber countered that the California Commission on Judicial Performance is “well-known for being a troubled and problematic agency.”
“It could’ve been any judge, but it happened to be him on the Turner case,” said Cordell, who says she knows Persky from seeing him in her court but does not consider him a friend. “He’s always stood up for women, he’s stood up against hate and he has this track record that is an impeccable one until we get to this one case, which he followed the law.”