Uncontested: Most of the trial judges in California's Superior Court system are re-elected without opposition

Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump. Justin Fareed. Salud Carbajal. Bruce Porter. Joan Hartmann. The names of these candidates and their opponents are familiar to many residents of Santa Barbara County who’ll be voting for them come Nov. 8. 

But what about James K. Voysey, Pauline Maxwell, or James Rigali? These are some of the names of Santa Barbara County Superior Court trial judges who are running for re-election in 2016. Nine of the county’s superior court judges are running to keep their seats this election cycle and all are unopposed. 

click to enlarge Uncontested: Most of the trial judges in California's Superior Court system are re-elected without opposition
UNOPPOSED INCUMBENT: Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores is one of nine judges in the county running unopposed in the 2016 election.

This means they are a guaranteed shoo-in to hold their seats. In fact, out of the 351 open superior court seats in California, only 22 have more than one candidate. In 2014, only 20 out of 470 seats were challenged; in 2012, 84 out of 537; in 2010, 38 of 399. 

Superior court judge positions are overwhelmingly uncontested for several reasons, some of them having to do with invisibility. 

“People don’t know who the judges are, and consequently people will vote for the incumbent,” UC-Santa Barbara Political Science Professor Eric Smith told the Sun

Trial judges in California run with no party affiliation and most don’t campaign, according to Cal Poly Political Science Professor Allen Settle. Even if they do campaign on certain issues, Settle added, they must recuse themselves from a case when those issues come up.

“The judiciary is very sensitive about being totally impartial and they don’t want to make any statement that might preclude them from a particular case,” Settle told the Sun, adding that a justice is supposed to be fair and impartial. 

“Voters do not know the judges as they do not campaign for the most part and thus low voter interest,” he added. “Voters have no knowledge of a judge’s voting record or even care.”

Because of this, challengers running against incumbents have slim chances of winning, Settle said. Occasionally, a judge will make a ruling considered so egregious that it will give a challenger the ammunition he or she needs to win. 

One notable case that comes to mind for Settle is the re-election campaign of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Alfred Gitelson, who ordered the integration of L.A. schools. Gitelson was defeated in November 1970 by attorney William P. Kennedy, who used the integration issue against him. 

Another recent case involving a trial judge has drawn scrutiny to judicial elections in California. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, won another six-year term because he ran unopposed.

Aside from election, there are other ways to remove judges, such as recalls and impeachment proceedings. When a judge is removed from office, the governor can appoint a judge who is in line with that governor’s political party. 

Not just anyone can run for a judicial seat in California. The person must be an attorney who is a member of the state’s Bar Association and serves as judge of record following an appointment. 

Appellate and state Supreme Court justices are also appointed by the governor then subject to elections to keep their seats. 

Unlike those elected to the state Legislature, California Superior Court judges don’t have term limits. 

Currently, there’s a recall effort against Persky (which he is fighting) that has collected millions of signatures, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

But other than high-profile incidents such as these, the average voter finds it almost impossible to obtain information on judges unless someone runs for the seat, according to UC-Santa Barbara Political Science Professor Ted Anagnoson. But, he asked, would they care? 

“Unless it is a contested seat, the incumbents always win,” Anagnoson said. “It’s not worth the trouble to research the candidates, which is a pretty awful thing for a political scientist to say, but that is the real world of a highly cluttered ballot.” 

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