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State of California

Judicial Selection in the States: California

Overview

Judges hold considerable sway over the lives of those in their courtrooms. But the average voter either has no clue how to assess judicial candidates...

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Courtesy of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of...

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The California judiciary consists of the supreme court, the courts of appeal, and the superior court. According to California's constitution, judges of the supreme court and courts of appeal are nominated by the governor and must be confirmed by the commission on judicial appointments, which consists of the chief justice, the attorney general, and a presiding justice of the courts of appeal. Since 1979, the legislature has required that the State Bar of California's commission on judicial nominees evaluation conduct a thorough investigation of the background and qualifications of prospective nominees, but the governor is not bound by the commission's recommendations. Appellate judges must stand for retention in the next gubernatorial election after their appointment. Appellate judges serve twelve-year terms.

Superior court judges are chosen in nonpartisan elections for six-year terms. The governor fills vacancies on the superior court by appointment. As with appellate court appointments, prospective nominees must first be investigated by the commission on judicial nominees evaluation. The vast majority of superior court judges initially reach the bench via gubernatorial appointment, and once on the bench, incumbents are rarely challenged for reelection.

In many states, judicial retention elections are low-key affairs, with judges facing little, if any, organized opposition. Over the years, retention elections for appellate justices in California have been the exception to this rule. In 1986, three justices, including the chief justice, were targeted for their rulings against the death penalty. A total of $11.5 million was spent campaigning for and against the justices, setting a record at that time for spending in a judicial election. In recent elections, justices have been targeted for their decisions in abortion cases, but efforts to unseat them have been unsuccessful. However, the margin of approval for state appellate justices in retention elections declined from an average of 76.8% in the 1980s to 60.1% in 1994.