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System of Confirming Supreme Court Nominees

May 16, 1987

The article by Ramona Ripston and Katherine Spiller (Editorial Pages, April 10) criticizes the present method of confirming California Supreme Court nominees.

They appear to misunderstand the existing process.

Before the governor makes his nomination, he must send potential nominees' names to the State Bar of California (the organization to which all attorneys belong) for a detailed review consisting of a survey of hundreds of lawyers, a background investigation, and interviews with the candidates themselves. The State Bar then reports back to the governor whether the nominee is unqualified or qualified. The governor, who ostensibly has conducted his own review, then makes his nomination from that list and submits it to the Commission on Judicial Appointments, of which I am a member, along with the Chief Justice and the Senior Presiding Justice of the Courts of Appeal. A public hearing is scheduled about 30 days later to allow testimony from supporters and critics.

In preparation for the hearing, under my direction, a thorough investigation is made of the nominee's qualifications, including interviews with those who know him or her best. Personal material relevant to the investigation focuses on integrity, competence and impartiality.

Sometimes, our investigation reveals problems and raises concern. In the case of a Superior Court judge nominated for the Court of Appeal, our investigation led to censure by the Commission on Judicial Performance and withdrawal by the nominee.

Our reports, often voluminous, are turned over to the other commission members and to the nominee (for rebuttal purposes) prior to the hearing and are released publicly after the hearing.

While it is always possible to improve the commission's makeup or procedures, I've found that the system has worked well in the past four years. The commission's votes during that period of time have been cast with an eye toward competence and integrity--not politics.

Were the process turned over to the state Senate, as some have suggested, the process would be much more likely to turn on the political issues of the moment, and the haggling between the governor and legislators. Some of the potential mischief inherent in such a system is found from time to time in the federal system when the Senate blocks all presidential nominees, usually toward the closing months of a President's term.

The choice is simple. If one wishes to politicize the process further (and one can always argue that the governor makes a political decision by his appointments), turning the matter over to the state Senate would be the answer. If we seek instead to provide a check on the governor through an independent review of the nominee's qualifications, then the commission should be retained.

As for me, I prefer insofar as possible to keep day-to-day politics out of the judiciary. I believe we should retain the commission process.

JOHN K. VAN de KAMP

Attorney General

State of California

Sacramento

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