Gov. Gray Davis has appointed more than a dozen judges since the election for his recall was set for Oct. 7, and both supporters and opponents clash over whether he is trying to pack California courts before then.
Even Burt Pines, the governor's judicial appointments secretary, is seeking a Los Angeles County Superior Court judgeship.
But Pines and others familiar with the governor's process for appointing judges said it is business as usual.
"We have not seen an increase in the number of potential candidates or an increase in appointments," said attorney Pamela E. Dunn, vice chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. panel that evaluates judicial nominees.
"We are proceeding normally," Pines said. "If you look at the history of the governor's appointments, you can see they always come in waves."
But Thomas W. Hiltachk, attorney for Rescue California, the group pushing for Davis' recall, said the recent judicial appointments "might not be midnight [appointments], but it's about 11 o'clock."
Hiltachk said Pines' application for a judgeship "may be one of the first visible signs of someone in the administration wondering how long the administration is going to last."
"I'm not questioning his credentials," Hiltachk said, "only his timing. It seems more than just coincidental."
Last year, Davis appointed 31 judges in April and May, 23 in August, 14 in October and 18 in December, according to statistics compiled by the governor's office.
The governor named 20 judges to the bench in March and April, and he has named 18 more since July 21. The recall election was certified July 23.
There are six vacancies on the state's appellate courts and about 35 on the trial bench, Pines said.
If Davis were recalled, he would not leave office immediately, giving him time to fill remaining vacancies. Since Davis took office, there always have been at least 25 vacancies, Pines said.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who serves on a commission that confirms Davis' appellate nominees, said the recent spurt of appointments has been consistent with past patterns.
"There have been dry periods with this administration and with others too, where nothing happens, and then the judicial appointments secretary gets access to the governor and in one long meeting, they may cover dozens of appointments," said George, a moderate Republican.
Most governors exercise their power to appoint before leaving office, said Gerald Uelman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law.
"Any time the governor is closing out a term, I think there is an effort to fill all the existing vacancies," he said.
"As long as there is a risk the governor may be recalled, it makes sense for him to do what any departing governor would do, and that is not leave any vacancies on the table."
Pines said his expected departure from the Davis administration "is not connected at all with the recall effort."
The former Los Angeles city attorney said he had planned to leave Sacramento at the end of Davis' first term in January, but agreed to the governor's request that he remain on staff until the end of the year.
Pines said he applied for a judgeship in early June.
The State Bar of California panel that evaluates judicial nominees began investigating Pines last month for a seat on Los Angeles County Superior Court.
George said putting Pines on the bench now is consistent with the timing in which previous administrations nominated judicial secretaries for judgeships.
Both former Govs. George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown appointed their top judicial advisors, Marvin Baxter and J. Anthony Kline, respectively, to the bench in the fifth year of their administrations, the chief justice said.