No California judge has been recalled from office since 1932, when Los Angeles voters removed three Superior Court judges accused of taking kickbacks. None has been recalled because of an unpopular ruling since 1913, when San Franciscans ousted a judge who had set a low bail for a man charged with sexual assault. But history may not provide much shelter for Aaron Persky, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge who faces a June 5 recall vote primarily because of a single decision: the six-month sentence he issued two years ago to former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, convicted of attempted rape and two other felonies for sexually penetrating a drunk and unconscious woman outside a fraternity party in January 2015. Furor over the sentencing spread nationwide, fueled by a heart-wrenching courtroom statement from Turner’s victim and the widespread view that Persky, swayed by his own background as a former Stanford athlete, had let Turner off far too lightly.
Advocates of Persky’s recall contend he has shown a pattern of bias in favor of athletes and privileged white defendants in other sex-crime cases. His supporters dispute that contention, and it was rejected by the state Commission on Judicial Performance, which has the power to reprimand or remove judges from office for ethical violations, after an ethics investigation. But in the minds of much of the public, the Turner case has come to symbolize judicial collaboration in the sexual exploitation that gave rise to the #MeToo movement.
A vote to remove a public official from office means “there’s something going on that shows great public dissatisfaction,” said Richard Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor and election law scholar.