Voters in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties will be asked Tuesday to cast "yes" or "no" votes for 11 justices on the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Their names may be unfamiliar, but they hold California's second most powerful judicial posts--the final arbiters of justice in more than 90% of appeals.
Court of Appeal justices face voters in the first gubernatorial election after their appointments and every 12 years after that. Their retention elections traditionally attract scant attention because the justices are virtually invisible outside the legal community.
"We are really the secret court," said Justice Charles S. Vogel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. Reporters, he noted, seldom cover their work.
But this year, the Court of Appeal is getting exposure as never before, especially in the 2nd District.
Though their tenure is not seriously threatened, the justices have raised $230,000 and hired the political campaign firm of Cerrell Associates to direct the Committee to Retain the 2nd District Court of Appeal Justices.
"It's not a question of being fearful or thinking that you're on the run," said Justice William A. Masterson of Los Angeles, chairman of the committee. "It's simply prudence and a recognition that the people have the right to make a decision on whether to retain us."
Masterson is among the 17 justices in the 2nd District who are not seeking retention this year. Forty of the state's 93 justices are running unopposed for the jobs that pay $126,850 a year.
On a Campaign to Educate
For several months, the "Eloquent Eleven," as they jokingly call themselves, have been speaking to civic, professional and community groups, explaining the court, their work and why it is important to keep them.
A vote to retain them, they say, is a vote for an independent and impartial judiciary.
"Our product is basically . . . taking each case based on the facts, and apply the law that is applicable," said Vogel.
The 11 justices have received endorsements from Mayor Richard Riordan, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, Public Defender Mike Judge, all five members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and several law enforcement organizations.
Citizens for Law and Order, a 1,000-member crime victims group based in Sonoma, is urging a "no" vote on three of the justices in the 2nd District for being too liberal. The group is also campaigning against a justice on the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego.
Bob Nicholas, executive director of Citizens for Law and Order, said his organization is opposing Justices Vaino Spencer, Arthur Gilbert and Earl Johnson Jr. of the 2nd District, and Edward J. Wallin of the 4th District based on a comprehensive study of their decisions in criminal cases.
The group's campaign is not expected to have much impact.
"I'd be very surprised if anybody is in danger," said Justice Marcel Poche of the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Some veteran court watchers, including former and present judges, question whether justices should campaign at all.
When justices hire a political consulting firm and raise campaign funds, it blurs the differences between judges and other elected officials, said retired Court of Appeal Justice Robert S. Thompson, who had a distinguished career on the bench and later at USC Law School.
He recalled the discomfort he felt when he received a mailer for a fund-raiser for the 2nd District judicial candidates.
"I got to thinking, what's going to happen when sponsors of that dinner--the elite of the appellate bar--have an appeal and some poor schmuck who didn't give any money to the justices represents the other side?" Thompson said.
A Unique Hybrid
Judges enjoy a special status in California. In 1934, the state adopted a nonpartisan election to insure judicial independence while giving citizens a way to check on their judges.
The system is a compromise between the life tenure of the federal judiciary and the partisan elections held in many states.
The governor appoints justices, but they must face voters in the first gubernatorial election after the appointment. Thereafter, they go before voters every 12 years and must receive a majority of yes votes to remain in office.
Gerald Uelmen, law professor at the University of Santa Clara and a veteran court watcher, said the system is based on a "very strong presumption" that appellate judges should be retained.
"Only if you have some specific information relating to misconduct," he said, "should you consider voting not to retain a judge."
Except for 1986, when Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird was voted out of office along with two colleagues, no appellate jurist has been removed at the polls.
Justice Wallin, one of the four Southern California justices being targeted by Citizens for Law and Order, said he will not campaign or raise money.