Like his Republican predecessor, Gov. Gray Davis has favored prosecutors and high-powered corporate lawyers in his choices for judgeships.
But the Democratic governor has leavened his selections with personal injury lawyers, more women and minorities, and a smattering of criminal defense attorneys and legal advocates for the poor.
In appointing more than 230 judges since taking office, Davis has received grudging praise even from many of his critics on the left and right for his largely middle-of-the-road choices.
A spokesman for the Bill Simon Jr. campaign for governor complained that Davis' selections are flawed because he won't appoint Californians who oppose abortion. Davis' judicial appointments secretary, Burt Pines, said candidates would not be excluded simply because they opposed abortion as long as they were pro-choice on the law.
Scholars and judges say Davis' appointees are similar in outlook to the kinds of federal judges selected by a fellow Democrat, former President Clinton. But there is a difference, they add. Clinton had to win approval from a Republican-dominated Senate for his choices. Davis needs no legislative approval and has chosen uncontroversial mainstream Democrats anyway.
Statistics compiled by the San Francisco Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, show that as of July, 83% of Davis judges had experience in civil law and 60% had worked as prosecutors. Many had both backgrounds. Only 22% had ever been criminal defense lawyers, and even fewer, 6%, had worked in legal aid.
Davis refuses to name any lawyer who is not rated as qualified by state bar evaluators, and a greater percentage of his appointees than his predecessors' have received the bar's highest ratings. An opinion of unqualified by a local bar association also closes the door to an appointment, Pines said.
Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, presiding justice of a state Court of Appeal division in Los Angeles, described the Davis judges as perhaps "a tad more conservative" than the Clinton appointees.
"I would not classify any of the appointments I know of as 'liberal' in the sense that word is used in common vernacular," Klein said.
Davis also has named a greater percentage of women and minorities than his Republican predecessors, and appointed five openly gay judges. Observing that 34% of Davis' judicial appointments have been women, Klein said the National Assn. of Women Judges will soon pass a resolution commending the governor for promoting women.
A prosecutors group and a conservative law-and-order nonprofit organization both praised Davis' judicial appointments. They also noted that his staff always asks local prosecutors to comment on those he is considering for the bench.
"He hasn't gone off to the dark side and appointed the wild-eyed libs," said Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury. The Republican prosecutor described Davis' judicial picks as excellent.
Nor has the governor shut out candidates with more liberal backgrounds, especially in such counties as San Francisco and Alameda that tend to support liberal Democrats.
"Initially when he was picking judges, candidates would be out of the picture entirely unless they jumped up and down with enthusiasm [for] the death penalty," said Golden Gate Law School Dean Peter Keane, a former public defender in San Francisco. "The questions now being put to candidates are the realistic ones, like whether or not you would apply the law."
To be sure, Davis hasn't made everyone happy. Fresno County Dist. Atty. Edward W. Hunt said he fears that one of Davis' appointees in Fresno might not give prosecutors a fair shake, "but by and large he has appointed judges who are pretty well-balanced."
Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Simon, said abortion opponents should not be excluded from judgeships. "Gov. Davis is very proud of speaking of great freedoms and our democratic process, but he has litmus tests with regard to whom he is going to appoint as judges," said the Simon campaign official.
Pines denied that Davis has a litmus test, but said, "Generally, the people who have been appointed have shared the governor's views on women's reproductive rights.
"Some may not have approved of abortion for themselves personally," Pines added, "but were nevertheless pro-choice."
Pines screens judicial candidates for Davis and recommends appointments. He said the governor will not put ideologues on the bench. Davis, he said, does "not want people to move the law to the right or the left or use the courts to solve social problems."
The governor also wants them to share his views on everything from abortion rights to public safety. Candidates are asked not just about the death penalty but also about criminal sentencing, search and seizure law, and police practices. They also are grilled on legal precedents that affect business.
"I do not ask them how they would rule on a particular matter, nor do I instruct them how they should rule," Pines said.