Judges are among the most powerful local elected officials in Orange County, overseeing justice on everything from personal injury lawsuits to child custody to murder cases.
Yet they’re among the toughest offices for voters to pick from because there’s such little information about the people running.
This year, Orange County had more judge seats on the ballot than any other time in recent memory.
But many voters complained there was little information to base their decision on – while also having to choose among dozens of other races on the ballot.
Amid a vacuum of information, Voice of OC published questionnaires of the judge candidates who were running in June and November – which ended up being among the most popular election articles this year.
Superior Court judges in California are elected by voters to six-year terms, though the governor makes an appointment if there’s a vacancy mid-term – from things like retirements, deaths or the rare event of a forced removal.
When people run for judge, they often fundraise from people and groups who have business before the court – either as attorneys or parties.
For example, county sheriff’s deputies, through their union, are among the biggest donors to judge campaigns.
In the wake of the OC informants scandal – which involved sheriff’s deputies and DA prosecutors – some observers like Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma note that Gov. Gavin Newsom “has been cautious about appointing sitting district attorneys” to the bench in Orange County.
So instead, a number of judges were able to essentially “hand off their seats” to prosecutors by retiring when their seats were up for election, thus making it an open seat, Balma said
Candidates with “district attorney” in their ballot title are considered the most likely to be elected for judge seats, with many voters only seeing a candidate’s name and ballot title before making a decision.
In years when the governor is on the ballot, voters are also asked whether to retain existing justices on state appeals courts and the California Supreme Court.
Balma said there’s only been one time voters have actually used that power since this process has been into effect in 1934. It was in 1986, when three state Supreme Court justices were removed in a retention election centered on their rulings to overturn several death penalty convictions.
Keeping the appeal and Supreme Court justices on the ballot adds a full page of names to an already-long ballot.
“I’m certainly not going to go through 12 years of case law” for each justice, Balma said.
“And so unless there is an organization that is actually paying attention, and telling me if somebody is senile, if somebody is too extreme, if somebody is incompetent, I just don’t have enough information.”
When it comes to Superior Court seats, Balma noted attorneys are reluctant to challenge incumbent judges up for election. Incumbents almost always win.
Out of the 37 OC judges up for election this year, not a single one was challenged. So, none of their seats appeared on the ballot.
“On this ballot, nobody challenged an incumbent, because that would have been a loss,” Balma said.
There’s a case cited as a chilling effect on people’s willingness to challenge incumbent judges when they come up for re-election – even if they have a history of misconduct.
Judge Scott Steiner was reprimanded in 2014 for having sex in his chambers on different occasions with an intern and an attorney, and contacting attorneys in the DA’s office about a job the intern was seeking there.
Two years later, he was up for re-election. And a DA prosecutor, Karen Schatzle, challenged him for his seat.
Even after his misconduct reprimand, Steiner won endorsements from other judges, then-DA Tony Rackauckas and the county sheriff’s deputies union.
The deputies’ union was Steiner’s biggest donor in the 2016 election, according to campaign records.
Steiner went on to win re-election. Schatzle later filed a lawsuit alleging Rackauckas retaliated against her for running. She lost at trial.
This year, Judge Michael Murray faced disciplinary hearings for alleged misconduct when he was a prosecutor.
No one challenged him for re-election.
Steiner also was up for re-election this year.
This time, no one ran against him.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.