Thursday, June 9, 2016

Beware judicial recalls

The light sentence given to convicted rapist Brock Turner has spurred a recall effort. Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail. While the news report doesn't explain Persky's reasoning (it doesn't look like Persky explained himself in open court), it does cite both Turner's and his father's statements to the court. Naturally, both men pleaded for leniency. The father "told the court that his son’s life shouldn’t be ruined because of '20 minutes of action'.”

I detect no hint that Turner's father has any concern for the victim, which may go a long way toward explaining why his son raped her. However, what concerns me is the recall effort against the judge.

Persky isn't a notoriously controversial judge: at least, no reports have surfaced of similarly contentious decisions on his part. Persky can't comment while the case is under appeal (as it apparently is). So what we have is an outraged public calling for a judge's job because it disagrees with one of his decisions.

Plenty of us were outraged by the recall effort mounted against justices of Iowa's Supreme Court in 2010, an effort led by opponents of those justices' ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Those justices didn't commit misconduct, they issued an unpopular ruling. The recall was purely and nakedly political.

As far as I can tell, Persky has committed no misconduct on the bench. We may disagree (vehemently) with the sentence he handed down, but we should be careful about doing more than yelling about it. Recalling judges completely ignores the role they play. Legislators and executives (mayors, governors, the President) are supposed to be responsive to public opinion. However, judges often have to ignore public opinion, or they can't safeguard the rights of those not in the majority. Thus recalling or electing judges makes absolutely no sense. (If you want a government that does only what the majority wants, ditch the judiciary, and for that matter, the Bill of Rights: the rights available to the people will be up to the majority. Better hope you're always in the majority under such a government.)

Six months sure sounds like an inappropriately light sentence for rape, and that bothers me. Even so, I won't support the recall effort against Judge Persky. Those who do may think they're crusading for justice, but they're really attacking one of the pillars of our government.

[UPDATE: I was wrong. Judge Persky did explain himself in open court.]

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