SACRAMENTO, CA – Legislation authored by Senator Ben Allen (D – Santa Monica) that will require candidates for judicial office to use a ballot title that reflects their actual occupation was signed into law Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown. Senate Bill 235 (SB 235) will prevent misleading, exaggerated ballot designations among candidates for judicial office that have become commonplace in recent elections.
“Permitting exaggerated and misleading designations on official ballot materials does a disservice to the public. Unfortunately, candidates who use such language have proven effective in winning elections,” Allen said.
The new law will require publicly employed attorneys to use their official job title or one of four straightforward ballot designations when seeking election to the bench. Other candidates who practice law as their principal profession must use one of the same four ballot designations. The four designations are: “Attorney,” “Attorney at Law,” “Lawyer,” or “Counselor at Law.” The new law allows qualified candidates who have other principal occupations to use those as designations.
Current law permits candidates for judgeships to write their own ballot designations using three words. These words should describe the candidate’s “principal professions, vocations, or occupations.” Such designations are especially consequential in judicial races because those elections are nonpartisan and the candidates are often among the least known on the ballot.
Nevertheless candidates for judge frequently have chosen ballot designations that emphasize and often exaggerate their purported experience in punishing criminals, so as to demonstrate that they are “tough on crime.” According to research conducted by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Randolph Hammock, between 2006 and 2016 in LA County, there were 41 Deputy District Attorneys (DDAs) who were candidates for superior court judge. Only once did a DDA utilize the straightforward ballot designation of “Deputy District Attorney” (2006). The other 40 times the DDA used one of the following designations or some variation thereof:
“Hardcore Gang Prosecutor,” “Sex Crimes Prosecutor,” “Gang Homicide Prosecutor,” “Criminal Gang Prosecutor,” “Gang Murder Prosecutor,” “Major Narcotics Prosecutor,” “Criminal Murder Prosecutor,” “Criminal Homicide Prosecutor,” “Child Molestation Prosecutor,” “Government Corruption Prosecutor,” “Violent Crimes Prosecutor,” or “Sexual Predator Prosecutor”
Among the DDAs cited above, who ran in a total of 37 separate races, the win rate was a high 86%, including in an election that unseated a sitting judge.
The litigating of ballot designations has become a common occurrence. In one recent judicial election, three out of five candidates were forced to change their designations after rivals claimed they misled voters. Such cases are expensive for both candidates and the court system while not necessarily providing voters any better information. A recent ruling merely required a candidate to change his designation from “gang murder prosecutor” to “gang homicide prosecutor.”
“By limiting ballot designations among candidates for judicial office, SB 235 more stringently requires candidates to adhere to the higher ethical standard of the judicial branch they wish to join. In so doing, it strikes a better balance on behalf of public interest than provided under current law,” Allen added.
The legislation was sponsored by Conference of California Bar Associations and supported by the California Judges Association, Los Angeles County Bar Association, San Diego County Bar Association and the Los Angeles Times editorial page. It received bi-partisan support in the legislature. The new law will take effect on January 1, 2018.
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