SACRAMENTO — One of every four judges appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson contributed to his gubernatorial campaign in amounts as high as $4,000 before being named, a Times review of Wilson's campaign records shows.
Altogether, 17 of the 65 men and women whom Wilson placed on the bench or elevated to a higher court through April gave him campaign money, according to the records.
The governor's advisers insist that the payments have no impact on Wilson's choice of judges--appointments that will affect the administration of justice in California long after Wilson has left office.
"Campaign contributions have absolutely no effect on the selection process," said Wilson's communications director, Dan Schnur. "Judgeships are not for sale."
The Times looked at the contributions of Wilson's judicial appointees after making a similar check of former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. As a Democratic presidential candidate, Brown has said that sizable contributions from special interests have corrupted the political process in America.
A Times analysis of Brown's records last month showed that 118 of the men and women appointed to the bench in his second term contributed to his political campaign committees--about a fifth of those he named to the bench between 1979 and 1983.
Brown also denied that there was any link between contributions and judicial appointments. Wilson did not respond to requests for interviews on the subject of his appointments.
Yet the review of political contributions to both governors is a reminder that California remains one of a dwindling number of states in which judgeships are part of the political patronage dispensed by chief executives. The governor fills almost all vacancies on the bench. Once appointed, judges rarely face opposition in elections intended to serve as a check on the system of political appointments.
The last effort in California to shift the appointment authority from the governor to an appointed commission--a proposal that was backed by some of the state's leading jurists as well as the California State Bar--died in the 1960s, blocked by those who said they preferred partisan politics to the politics of lawyers and bar associations.
In recent years, however, a number of states have moved to limit their governors' discretion in the naming of judges.
The most recent state to switch to a type of merit selection was New Mexico in 1988 after voters approved a state constitutional amendment. The governor still fills all vacancies, but is limited to candidates first recommended by commissions made up of lawyers, judges and lay people.
"The bottom line is that appointments have been better," said Judge W. John Brennan of Albuquerque, a leader in the battle to change the New Mexico system although he himself was a political appointee to the bench.
In California, few deny that political considerations play a part in choosing judges. The only question is how large a part.
Not many Democrats can expect to be named to the bench under Republican Wilson--fewer than 10% so far, by one estimate--and contributors to his political opponents have even less chance, the governor's advisers agree.
"To say that there is no political component at all would be misleading," said Chuck Poochigian, Wilson's appointments secretary and a central figure in the selection of judges. "But first and foremost it is a merit selection."
Marin County Superior Court Judge Michael B. Dufficy, elevated to his current position by Wilson, described the selection process as "something of a mystery," but he acknowledged that political activity can make a difference.
Dufficy contributed $4,000 to Wilson between June, 1989, and his promotion to the Superior Court bench in January of this year.
A former Marin County co-chairman in the election campaigns of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who first appointed him to the Municipal Court bench, Dufficy said that if the governor were looking at three candidates "and one was a campaign chairman and the other two weren't and the (California State Bar's) judicial committee found them equally qualified, the governor would appoint his buddy. What's wrong with that?"
Poochigian stressed the importance of a series of reviews that each judicial applicant must undergo before a governor makes an appointment.
The most important of those, Poochigian said, is the rating from the State Bar's Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission. For more than a decade, state law has required that all judicial appointees receive reviews by the commission, which places each candidate in one of four categories--"exceptionally well qualified," "well qualified," "qualified," or "not qualified." Except for appointees who are rated "not qualified," the bar commission is prohibited from releasing individual ratings publicly.