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California judiciary summit to discuss political
special interest group attacks

By Julia Cheever, Bay City News Service


October 29, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) - More than 300 leaders of the California court system will gather in San Francisco next week to talk about recent developments in judicial elections and attacks against judges around the nation by political and special interests.

The conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel Nov. 1-3 is organized by the state Judicial Council and entitled Summit of Judicial Leaders.

Judicial Council spokeswoman Lynn Holton said, "Courts and judges across the country are facing new threats to their judicial independence.

This conference will explore the challenges of judicial elections in some states and how we can protect the courts in California."

Speakers will include retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who will give a keynote speech on "Independence of the Judiciary" at the closing luncheon of the conference on Nov. 3.

Holton said participants in the conference will include the presiding judge, assistant presiding judge and chief administrator of nearly all the 58 county-based Superior Courts in California.

The state's six appeals courts will be represented by their clerk-administrators and most or all of the courts' administrative presiding justices.

California Chief Justice Ronald George recently noted that one example of a possible trend is a measure that will appear on the South Dakota ballot next month, entitled the Judicial Accountability Initiative Law and also known as "JAIL4Judges."

The measure would eliminate traditional judicial immunity and allow lawsuits against judges found by a special grand jury to have abused their discretion during the course of their judicial duties.

George told the annual meeting of the State Bar in Monterey earlier this month that although such measures have not yet reached California, he is concerned that they could come to the Golden State.

The chief justice said the South Dakota measure originated with a California group that wants to try to pass it in several small states before bringing it to California.

He told the bar meeting, "We cannot assume we are immune, and if we ignore the trends that are testing the limits in other jurisdictions, we do so at our own peril."

Topics of the conference include judicial election reform, the challenge of maintaining fair and impartial courts in the face of recent developments in judicial elections and attacks on the courts, and judicial independence.

In California, Superior Court or trial judges run for office in nonpartisan elections every six years. In practice, most are initially appointed to the bench by the governor to fill vacancies and are often not opposed when they run for new terms.

Court of Appeal and Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor and approved by a state commission and appear on the ballot every 12 years for confirmation by the voters. If a justice is not confirmed by the voters -- as happened with three state Supreme Court justices in 1986 -- the governor appoints a replacement.

Other states have varying procedures, ranging from having all judges appointed by the governor to having all judges at all levels elected in either nonpartisan or partisan elections.

George said on Friday, "The manner in which we select our judges inevitably helps shape the way in which they dispense justice, and thus is a vital component in our society's adherence to the rule of law, the cornerstone of our democracy."

California has the largest court system in the nation, with about 1,500 Superior Court judges and 400 commissioners, 105 Court of Appeal justices and seven Supreme Court justices. The Judicial Council is the policymaking body of the state courts.

Holton said the council holds a meeting of state court leaders every year, but this is the first year it has been a summit focused primarily on a single topic rather than a conference on a number of topics.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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